The Oak Park and River Forest High School football team let a golden opportunity slip away over the weekend. The Huskies had a chance to earn a share of the West Suburban Conference Silver Division title with Hinsdale Central and secure a probable home game and high seed in the Class 8A state playoffs.
Instead, the host Red Devils defeated OPRF 21-12 to finish 9-0, clinch the conference championship outright, and earn a second seed in the stacked 8A postseason draw.
Conversely, the Huskies finished with a 7-2 regular season record and the No. 21 seed (out of 32 teams) in 8A.
But here’s the real rub: OPRF opens on the road against Edwardsville, located a mere 275 miles from the friendly confines of Oak Park Stadium.
Coupled with the Huskies’ long drive, it turns out their opponent can play a little ball. Edwardsville finished 8-1 (their lone loss, 20-10 to 7A powerhouse East St. Louis, which snapped the Indians’ 30-game conference win streak). Edwardsville is led by All-American A.J. Epenesa, who plays a monstrous defensive end, along with strong support from senior quarterback Brenden Dickmann, sophomore running back Dionte Rodgers and a cadre of other playermakers.
The 6-foot-5, 260-pound Epenesa, who committed to Iowa in January, is a consensus top 20 recruit nationally.
If the Huskies get past Edwardsville, their draw could include a gauntlet of Oswego, Homewood-Flossmoor, Loyola, and ironically enough, a possible rematch against Hinsdale Central in the state final. Those four teams, collectively, are 36-0.
If OPRF survives its daunting draw, not only will the Huskies have earned a state title, I’ll check head coach John Hoerster for a pulse.
Thankfully, the state playoffs never follow a surefire script. Upsets are the seasonings that spice up sports for fans. And make no mistake, OPRF has the ability to win or lose against the state’s elite football programs.
In fact, as an armchair prognosticator, I offer you this prediction with assurance: I have no idea how the Huskies will fare in the 8A playoffs.
Since Hoerster took over as the head coach in 2011, OPRF is 3-4 in the playoffs and has never gotten past the second round. The Huskies have produced solid postseason wins over teams like Dundee-Crown and Fremd but flameouts as well against the likes of Barrington and Palatine.
Hoerster hit it on the head when I asked him about the 8A playoffs last season. “Class 8A is no joke,” he said. “There are a lot of great teams out there, so you can get beat even if you play well.”
That quote has always resonated with me when I think about OPRF football from a broader perspective. It’s comforting to know that under Hoerster’s watch, the Huskies have proven they are good for seven or eight wins and a top-half finish in the highly competitive West Suburban Silver annually.
However, all bets are off once the playoffs kick in. I hope the Huskies win the 8A state title this season. We all do. If they don’t, here’s why: They probably lost to a better team.
What I really hope for is that the community appreciates the well-regarded status OPRF has regained (as has Fenwick football for that matter) within the landscape of high school football.
Hoerster, his coaching staff and the players have put in countless hours over the past five years to restore the Huskies’ tradition of success.
On a personal note, I’ve been touched how gracious the players have been with me during interviews. Guys like Jeremy Hunt, Jared Scott, Jacob Hale, Ryan Molina, Austin Maxwell and Rolliann Sturkey (among so many others), go out of their way to provide good info about the team or simply to say hello.
I wish the Huskies luck, but if you’re looking for Farmer’s Fearless Prediction (a staple of our award-winning website, The Huddle, a few seasons ago), here’s the best I can offer: To steal a line from recent NBA retiree Kevin Garnett, “Anything is possible.”
After all, look at the two teams in the World Series.