OPRF defender John Mitchell (#11) served as a top leader and playmaker for the Huskies' defense this season. (Photo by Vic Guarino)

In recent years, the Illinois High School Association’s Class 8A football state playoffs have served as the equivalent of World Cup Soccer’s “Group of Death.” There are so many good teams in the class and lower-seeded squads winning on the road in the first round has been common. In 2015, a 5-4 Waubonsie Valley team won its first-round game on the road and wound up going all the way to the semifinals.

So when Oak Park and River Forest faced highly-regarded Marist Friday in Chicago, the Huskies went in feeling confident that playing in a rigorous conference such as the West Suburban Silver would be good preparation.

But Marist, with Big Ten recruits like tight end T.J. Ivy and defensive ends Gavin McCabe and Elijah Teague, proved why it’s considered a top contender for the 8A title.

The Redhawks used a 31-point outburst in the second quarter to overwhelm OPRF 44-0.

The loss ends the Huskies’ season with a 5-5 record. OPRF coach John Hoerster was impressed with Marist.

“They are a really good football team,” he said. “They are very well-coached and have some standout players. They’re disciplined in all three phases.”

On the opening possession of the game, Marist went on a 12-play, 66-yard scoring drive. The Redhawks went 4-for-4 on third down during the drive, which ended with Delonte Harrell’s 2-yard touchdown run. Thomas Gillen added the extra point to give the Redhawks a 7-0 lead at the 7:08 mark of the opening quarter.

The Huskies’ initial drive turned out to be their best of the night. OPRF started on its 30-yard line and advanced to the Marist 34, with senior quarterback Brian May’s (returning from an injury) 29-yard completion to Craig Shelton being the biggest play. However, the drive stalled and the Huskies would punt.

The Redhawks’ next drive went 92 yards on 8 plays, with the last play being a 51-yard touchdown pass from Michael Markett to Ivy (Indiana recruit). Gillen’s PAT boosted Marist’s lead to 14-0 at the 10:45 mark of the second quarter.

Led by defensive ends McCabe (another Indiana recruit) and Teague (Minnesota recruit), Marist got a quick three-and-out. Then a punt return plus a personal foul penalty on OPRF put the Redhawks in business on the Huskies’ 8. However, the OPRF defense held, and Gillen booted a 21-yard field goal to up the lead to 17-0 with 7:01 left in the first half.

The Redhawks put the game away with three more touchdowns in the final seven minutes of the first half. On OPRF’s drive after the field goal, May’s pitch attempt went awry and was recovered by Marist’s Colin Bohanek at the Huskies’ 38. The Redhawks cashed in on the gift with an 8-play TD drive capped by Harrell’s 1-yard run.

Things got worse for the Huskies on the next drive when Michael Lawlor’s block of a Henry Darrow punt set up Marist on the OPRF 8. Markett tossed a 5-yard TD pass to Billy Skalitzky.

Finally, a Trevon Brown fumble set up Markett’s third TD pass, a 23-yarder to Harrell. The extra point made it 38-0 with 33 seconds left before halftime.

Markett’s 11-yard TD run at the 4:49 mark of the third quarter upped the Redhawks’ advantage to 44-0 and initiated a running clock for the remainder of the game.

After the game, there were many tears on the faces of OPRF senior players, as this could have been the final organized football game they play in.

Hoerster briefly paused when asked about his senior class and what those players have meant to the program.

“I just love those guys,” Hoerster said. “That last game is always the hardest thing about football. I’ve known these guys for so long, going back to their youth football days. To see them grow, develop, and do so many amazing things, it’s sad that we don’t have any more time together. They’re a good group.

“Football is a long season,” he added. “From the off-season weight-training workouts in the winter and spring, to the summer camps and into the fall, it’s a long time to spend with a group of people. Not everyone has such an opportunity to develop close bonds like we did with these guys.”

Indeed, there are many seniors who put in admirable efforts at OPRF. Left tackle Phil Saleh is committed to Fordham and was a beast on both lines. Running back Terrance Roundy had a good season and should draw some college looks soon. May, Fred Brandstrader, and John Mitchell all displayed grit, character, and determination all season. And Kevin Gilbert came on strong towards the end of the season with inspired play at linebacker.

These young men – along with the other seniors – truly symbolize what it means to be a Huskie football player, and will undoubtedly pass down lessons learned to the younger players on the team.

Looking ahead, there are several returnees for 2018. Quarterback Toby Kunkel (who went in after May reinjured himself), running back Keith Robinson, and wide receivers Brown and Craig Shelton will lead the offense next season. Cedric Cheatham, Izaiah Ruffin, and Aidan Shea are top returners on defense.

Additionally, both the freshman and sophomore teams had good talent this season. A few reinforcements from those groups, plus the experience gained by the juniors, could lead to a return to contention in both the West Suburban Silver and Class 8A playoffs next year.

Hoerster expects the players to continue their hard work.

“We have to continue to grow,” he said. “We have to continue to make sure that we aren’t complacent with being okay with the status quo, as we talk about all the time. It’s always fun to see what happens in an offseason, to see who emerges, who’s hungry.

“Hopefully, the returning players will learn lessons from this season and build on it, while also appreciating the time they have together.”

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