Oak Park and River Forest High School head football coach John Hoerster rattles off their names and fondly talks about their accomplishments as if they were his own sons. Guys like Emonte Logan, Andre Lee, Jamal Baggett, Xavier Rowe, Mike Hayden, Josh Hale, Justin Starks and Simmie Cobbs. They formed the nucleus of a stellar senior class which powered the OPRF football team to a 9-2 record, runner-up finish in the rugged West Suburban Conference Silver Division and a solid showing in the playoffs last season.
While it will be difficult to replace such a core of character-filled players, offensive lineman Steve Skrine (another senior on last year’s team) has always believed the Huskies’ best is yet to come.
“I think our junior class could be even better than us,” Skrine said after the Huskies’ 34-21 loss against visiting Maine South in the second round Class 8A playoffs last November. “I think [in 2014] they can get even farther in the playoffs.”
Time will tell regarding Skrine’s prediction. For the record, Hoerster views the conference hierarchy in the following fashion.
“Until someone knocks them off, I think [defending conference champion] Glenbard West is the favorite,” Hoerster said. “They are the team to beat and just reload every year with a great coaching staff that gets the maximum out of every kid they have on the team.
“The rest of the conference is a crapshoot. Our conference stacks up top to bottom with any conference in the state. Making it through the gauntlet of our conference schedule really prepares a team well for the playoffs.”
Since Chad Hetlett took over as the head coach at Glenbard West in 2007, the Hilltoppers own a glittering 76-12 record with a state title in 2012. Last year, OPRF nearly beat Glenbard West before falling 20-14 in a thriller at Oak Park Stadium.
Hetlett made it a point to drop by the OPRF huddle after the game and congratulate the Huskies on a hard-fought battle and their rapid development under Hoerster. After going 3-6 in Hoerster’s first year (2011), the Huskies have won 16 games the past two seasons, the first time they’ve accomplished that since 1987-88.
“It’s amazing what happens when kids get used to a system,” Hoerster said. “When players get used to the same system, the same terminology and a stabilized coaching staff, teaching the game becomes so much easier. We’ve established who we are, what we do and how we do it.”
The Huskies offer an intriguing mix of returning veterans and several other talented but unproven players, at least on the varsity level.
Offensively, Northwestern-bound quarterback Lloyd Yates returns for OPRF as arguably the most versatile player in the conference. Yates is a dual-threat quarterback who completed 120 of 190 passes for 1,958 yards and 20 touchdowns with only four interceptions last season. He also rushed for 849 yards and 10 touchdowns on 117 carries. Senior Sam Pochyly remains at the ready as a solid backup quarterback.
“We had a great season last year but came up short in terms of our expectations,” Yates said. “This season we’re looking to build on what we have started and keep this winning tradition [here] hopefully all the way to state title.”
Left tackle Adam Lemke-Bell (6-5, 265 pounds) and right tackle Phil Berton (6-4, 255) comprise a pair of outstanding bookends along the offensive line to protect Yates. Running backs Antonio Cannon, De’Viaughn Benion and Jamarri Watson are all blessed with tremendous speed and could share playing time. Returning 6-3, 185-pound KeJuan Ratcliff leads the wide receiving corps. Mundelein High School transfer Cole Fields, Dallis Flowers, Kamal Bey and Breshawn Wilkerson round out the rest of Yates’ primary passing targets.
On defense, OPRF lost a ton of talented players to graduation but a few returners should facilitate a smooth transition. Defensive end Allen Stallings, who showed flashes of stardom as a sophomore, three-year starting linebacker Marty McAndrews and senior free safety Nate Godwin take over the Huskies’ junior-laden defense. Highly touted Glenbard South defensive end Jelani Onigbinde will join Stallings to trigger the Huskies’ pass rush, while linebackers Jahmari Moore, Sam Francis, Bey, Dawon Browley Lacey and Rollian Sturkey could potentially form a special unit. Godwin and Flowers anchor the secondary.
“Defensively, we’re really young but there’s a lot of talent,” Godwin said. “Marty and I need to be leaders on defense. Our expectations are very high. I think we can go all the way [to a Class 8A state title].”
Special teams leaders include Cannon, long snapper Andrew Borgdorff, kicker Sebastian Medala. Yates is the punter.
“I think they story of our team is that we’re really excited a about the potential we have,” Hoerster said. “Another interesting thing is of our 22 starters almost all of them are two or three-sport athletes. We encourage that as coaches because our players are competitors.”