With a school-record six straight playoff appearances, the Oak Park and River Forest High School football team has become a consistently competitive force under head coach John Hoerster.
The Huskies took their lumps last season as a talented but inexperienced team, which finished 5-5 and lost 44-0 to Marist in the opening round of the Class 8A playoffs.
With a large number of returning players, Hoerster is optimistic that OPRF can return to the form which saw the Huskies win at least seven games each season from 2012 through 2016.
“The offseason was great,” he said. “We had a lot of numbers and a lot of enthusiasm. Last year we had a young group, but this year we have a lot of guys with experience and wisdom. Our leadership has been good.”
The Huskies welcome back plenty of talented players, led by a pair of senior stalwarts in wide receiver Trevon Brown and defensive end Izaiah Ruffin.
Brown made an immediate impact as a playmaker last season. In the 2017 season opener against Simeon at Gately Stadium, Brown made a diving 29-yard touchdown catch in the closing seconds of the fourth quarter to lift the Huskies to a thrilling 29-28 win. The next week at home versus Downers Grove South, Brown’s TD reception sparked another fourth-quarter comeback victory. Against Hinsdale Central, he caught six passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns. He also excelled against Downers Grove North with seven catches for 68 yards.
Ruffin, who has orally committed to Cincinnati, is a physical specimen at 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds with tremendous athleticism. He sacked Simeon quarterback Alante Brown on the game’s final play to seal the Huskies’ aforementioned Week 1 win in 2017. He also had a game-clinching sack the following week versus Downers Grove South. As the season progressed, Ruffin proved to be a disruptive force along the Huskies’ defensive line.
Other returners with experience include junior quarterback Toby Kunkel, senior running back Keith Robinson, senior wide receiver Craig Shelton, nose tackle Ashford Hollis, senior linebackers Cedric Cheatham and Aidan Shea, and senior defensive back Machi Young.
Senior kicker/punter Henry Darrow also returns as a special teams leader.
Kunkel is entrenched in a three-way battle with senior Ethan Reinhardt and sophomore Jaden McGill for the starting quarterback quarterback job, while the running game is pretty set.
“Keith and Nazareth Bryant are our top two running backs right now,” Hoerster said. “They’ve done a great job this offseason and we’re excited about those two.”
Hoerster is high on a pair of varsity newcomers in sophomores Jaden McGill and Nahlyee Bryant (younger brother of Nazareth Bryant). Both figure to see playing time this season.
“Jaden and Nahlyee are going to be two exciting players for us,” he added. “They’re two multi-sport athletes who have had good offseasons and good camps.”
The Huskies will need all hands on deck to navigate through another challenging schedule. The degree of difficulty in terms of the schedules is designed that way to ensure OPRF is battle-tested come playoff time.
OPRF opens the season at home against Waubonsie Valley (Aug. 24/7:30 p.m.).
“Since I’ve been at OPRF, we’ve tried to schedule some competitive and challenging Week 1 games,” Hoerster said. “We feel such games give us a sense of where we are as a team. These kinds of games prepare us for the difficult conference season ahead and hopefully for November as well.”
The Warriors, who defeated the Huskies 28-7 in a 2012 IHSA Class 8A second-round playoff game, are coming off of a 4-5 season which saw them miss the postseason. That’s a rarity for the perennial playoff team.
“Waubonsie Valley is a really good football program,” Hoerster said. “They took it to us pretty good in the playoffs a few years ago. The good thing about this game is that we’ll know where we’re at. We’ll see how our kids have progressed and see what we need to do to improve. We’re excited; it’s going to be a great challenge.”
Per usual, the West Suburban Conference Silver Division should be one of the better leagues in the state. Glenbard West appears to be the team to beat, followed closely by Hinsdale Central. Beyond the Hilltoppers and Red Devils, the league race is wide open
“Until something else happens, Glenbard West and Hinsdale Central are the ones to beat,” Hoerster said. “They’ve been on top of the conference standings the last three years. That being said, Lyons Township is right up there. Downers Grove North and York have new coaches.
“There are going to be some interesting moments this season,” Hoerster added. “You can never take a week off in this league because you’re going to get a good game every week. Glenbard and Hinsdale may get the attention, but there’s a lot of good, competitive football in our league. No program can be counted out.”
The Huskies are focused on their own development.
“We just have to make sure we’re not looking ahead,” Hoerster said. “We’ve got to make sure every day we’re working hard to get better than the day before. We’ve got to get our young guys developed and we’ve got to lean on our seniors for leadership.
“It’s not week-to-week for us. We have to get better day-today,” he added. “If we can focus on getting better every single day in practice, at the very least, it will give us an opportunity to compete every weekend.”