Survive and advance, win or go home, and one game at a time, are just some of the many clichés that can be rattled off by any team with state title aspirations once the postseason kicks off.
The Oak Park and River Forest High School football team made all those clichés a reality by passing its first test of the Class 8A playoffs with a hard-fought 26-17 win over visiting Fremd on Friday, Oct. 30.
OPRF senior running back Jamarri Watson had 15 carries for 109 yards, including a critical 35-yard run on a third-and-43 from the OPRF 3-yard line against Fremd. Senior quarterback Keegan Smith finished 9 of 19 passing for 200 yards and accounted for three TDs. Seniors Antonio Cannon rushed 24 times for 68 yards and Cole Fields had four catches for 23 yards. Junior wide receiver Eddie Gorens had a breakout performance with two touchdown receptions and 86 yards receiving overall.
Senior linebacker Jahmari Moore led the Huskies in tackles with five, followed by Evan Bell (4.5), Connor Nelson (4) and Allen Stallings (3.5). Sean Woods and Ryan Molina each had a critical interception. Rolliann Sturkey, Keyon Blankenbaker and Brenden Flowers led the secondary with seven tackles, collectively.
“I think we won tonight because of our composure,” said OPRF defensive lineman Austin Maxwell. “We all stayed in it for the fight. We didn’t put our heads down when we were losing and did what we were taught. We executed when we needed to during the game.”
The victory advances the Huskies (9-1) into a second-round matchup against Palatine (8-2), which slipped past Sandburg 20-19 in overtime. Kickoff is Saturday at 1 p.m. at Oak Park and River Forest High School Stadium.
“Palatine runs some stuff similar to some teams we have seen in the past,” OPRF linebacker Sam Francis said. “They have a really good quarterback so we’re putting emphasis on him. We need to shut him down and their running game, and then be ready for the pass when it comes.
“It’s huge that we’re getting to play another playoff game at home. We’re ready and excited to play well in front of our fans.”
Regardless what happens against Palatine, the Huskies are having the time of their lives.
“Each and every day we get to spend together as a team is truly a blessing,” Moore said. “Last season, we were knocked out of the playoffs early so we are really sitting back and enjoying it this season.
“Even today, being able to practice in beautiful weather and have fun with each other is awesome. Opportunities like this are limited so we’re trying to enjoy this as much as possible.”
Here’s a review of what’s new with the Huskies in this week’s OPRF Notebook.
Next up, Palatine: OPRF (9-1) hosts Palatine (8-2) on Saturday at 1 p.m. The Pirates feature quarterback Zach Oles, running back Josh Turner and wide receivers Joey Roy, Jovone Stricker and Matt Lamm. Linebacker Michael Williams, Dillon McHugh, Brody Muck and Nelson Hanson lead the defense, along with lineman Jake Falduto and Jake Garcia in the secondary.
The Pirates, who have won the Mid-Suburban West title in four of the last five seasons, have notable victories against Barrington, Conant and Rolling Meadows this year.
The OPRF Sack Exchange
Although the Huskies have dominated their opponents in virtually every statistical category, their advantage in sacks is notable. Simply put, OPRF has won up front decisively with 25 sacks while allowing only three. With tremendous pass rushers like Stallings (team-high 5.5 sacks), Nelson (4.5 sacks) and Moore (4 sacks), it’s not surprising OPRF has consistently put pressure on quarterbacks.
Just a few weeks ago, OPRF recorded a season-high six sacks in one game against Hinsdale Central, which has one of the best offensive lines in the West Suburban Conference Silver Division. The Huskies’ 3-5-3 defensive look enables them to utilize their speed and depth.
Speaking of offensive lines, the Huskies’ front wall has developed nicely this season. Perceived as an area of concern in the preseason, offensive linemen Jay Heininger, James Cousin, Jacob Hale, Ethan Lemons, Sharmore Clarke and Noah Coplan have allowed only the aforementioned three sacks for an offense averaging 30.2 points. The Huskies are also averaging 228 yards per game on the ground.
Heininger and Cousin, both seniors, have anchored the line with their leadership and ability. The other four linemen return next season and will comprise the nucleus of a potentially outstanding group.
“James and Jay, and also Jacob, who was on varsity last year, have taught us the way things work,” Lemons said. “We all go over our plays and communicate well together. We’re not the biggest offensive line, but we’re fast and we work well together as one. Tone (Cannon) and Jamarri (Watson) plus Keegan (Smith) really do a lot for our offense, too, so we depend of them.”
Blankenbaker bursts onto scene
The OPRF defense is littered with stars on every level of the defense. Stallings and Moore are three-year varsity players attracting a lot of recruiting attention from Division I schools, while Breshawn Wilkerson, Evan Bell, Francis, Molina and Sturkey are other notable playmakers.
The breakout player on defense, and arguably the entire team, has been junior Keyon Blankenbaker. The 5-10, 170-pound cornerback has 39 tackles, 31 pass breakups and three interceptions. He typically covers an opponent’s top wide receiver and possesses good hands, speed and instincts.
“I like going up against the best receivers because it makes me better,” Blankenbaker said. “My role on the defense is basically to lock up my man and let our defensive line do their job. We have a bunch of guys who makes plays on our defense. We all know our roles.”
“I think I’ve improved a lot this season. Last year I had some difficulties concentrating on the field, but I’ve really developed my mental game playing in the secondary.”
While the focus remains on this season, it’s surely a source of comfort for defensive coordinator Tim Fischer knowing that Blankenbaker, along with fellow juniors Sturkey and Brenden Flowers, return next season to solidify the secondary.
Kudos to Keegan and Jeremy
Prior to this season, the OPRF quarterback position was a non-issue with three-year starter Lloyd Yates excelling under center. Yates, now playing football at Northwestern, graduated as one of the best quarterbacks in program history.
After Yates moved on to Evanston, junior Jeremy Hunt and senior Keegan Smith surfaced during the offseason as the top candidates for the quarterback job.
Head coach John Hoerster ultimately chose Hunt as the starter with Smith pegged as a capable backup. Although Hunt experienced a few growing pains as a first-year starter, he led OPRF to a 6-0 record before enduring a season-ending ankle injury against York.
At 6-3 and 210 pounds, the athletic Hunt has the potential to be a very good quarterback. He will enter next season as the team’s starting signal caller. In light of his injury, it’s been encouraging to see how well he has dealt with that adversity and supported his teammates. That maturation process should serve him well next season.
Smith has also handled the situation well. After replacing Hunt midway through the fourth quarter against York, Smith started his first varsity game against defending conference champion Glenbard West in Week 7.
After the Hilltoppers defeated OPRF 34-7, Smith has led the Huskies to three wins in a row against Lyons Township, Hinsdale Central and Fremd (all playoff teams).
He’s been effective by staying within the offensive game plan and not trying to do too much. Of course (like Hunt), Smith is more than capable of making big plays. Against Fremd in last week’s playoff opener, Smith threw two touchdown passes to Eddie Gorens, ran for another TD, and converted a critical third down-and-8 on a tough run to set up Antonio Cannon’s 1-yard touchdown plunge on the next play. He’s also an accurate passer with good instincts and quick feet in the pocket.
While almost any football team prefers a clear-cut starter at quarterback, OPRF has been afforded the luxury of having two players ably suited for the position.
“Throughout the entire season, and even back during the summer, Keegan and Jeremy both got reps with offensive starters,” Hoerster said. “We really haven’t changed anything since Keegan became the starter. We do what we do and it really comes down to people making good decisions.”
Hunt and Smith, collectively, are 9-1 this season. That record, coupled with their willingness to be true team players in an admittedly difficult situation, is a testament to their character.
In many respects, junior wide receiver/defensive lineman Eddie Gorens is still learning the game of football. He’s a raw talent but the key word is talent. The 6-4, 190-pound Gorens caught touchdown passes from Smith of nine yards and 65 yards against Fremd to provide OPRF a huge, timely lift offensively.
Gorens has also been used as a defensive end situationally.
Blessed with size, speed and athleticism, Gorens is definitely a player to look for in the future.
“Eddie is one of only two guys going both ways,” Hoerster said. “Eddie relieves some of our defensive guys and can give our D-linemen a breather. He’s really come on strong offensively. Not only does he give you height, size and speed in the passing game but he’s a great blocker. He’s still young and maturing but we love Eddie’s progress.”
Senior running backs Antonio Cannon and Jamarri Watson have been the best and most consistent players on offense, while Stallings and Moore are the top two performers on a stacked defense. For all-around value and versatility, though, senior linebacker/wide receiver Breshawn Wilkerson is about as good as it gets.
Offensively, he’s tied with Watson for second in catches with 20 (for 269 yards) and has also rushed four times for 21 yards (5.3 yards per carry). At linebacker, he has 15 tackles, two sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss and 17 pass breakups. He also plays special teams and provides the Huskies an effective combination of athleticism and toughness. Wilkerson can play multiple positions, including running back, wide receiver, safety, cornerback and linebacker.
During the winter, he’s a starting guard for the OPRF basketball team.
Although he did make a mistake mentally against Fremd by not fielding a kickoff that the Vikings recovered as a live ball deep in OPRF territory, Wilkerson has been rock solid all season.
Clean up the yellow laundry, Huskies
In recent weeks, OPRF has been victimized by several questionable calls from officials. While assuredly some of the on-field rulings have worked against the Huskies, the reality is this season OPRF has committed 86 penalties for 746 yards, while their opponents have had 48 penalties for 355 yards.
That kind of disparity can be interpreted in different ways, but OPRF obviously needs to cut down on penalties. 8.6 penalities per game is simply too many. Fans are allowed some latitude to get on the refs; at some point though, the numbers don’t lie.
Overall, there hasn’t been too much to criticize about the Huskies. There have been too many dropped passes, some costly turnovers, occasional special teams blunders and the penalties issue. If they can improve in these areas while also playing to their strengths, that combination bodes well for an extended stay in the postseason.
On a personal note, I’d like to offer a long overdue shout-out and thank you to the guys up in the press box at OPRF home games. Public address announcer Michael LeFevre, clock operator JP Coughlin, scoreboard operator Tom Clark, statistician Jim Zaino and spotter Tom Beinborn are all terrific at their respective responsibilities.
LeFevre and Clark are staples around OPRF athletic events, while Zaino and Beinborn collaborate together to provide the OPRF coaching staff comprehensive stats on a game-by-game basis. Here’s hoping on Saturday, we hear LeFevre exclaim many times on the microphone, “Touchdown Huskies!”
In addition to keeping track of the clock, Coughlin also serves as the OPRF Stadium DJ. Whether it’s the pre-game techno music or fans near the press box calling for more AC/DC, JP expertly handles the musical selections at games.
By the way, JP, if you’re taking requests this week, put me down for Silento’s, “Watch Me” (Whip/Nae Nae). Not only is it a catchy jam, but the Huskies tend to play well and win when that song is played. Considering that this is the playoffs, it’s best to leave no stone unturned.