This “Tate’s Take” column was supposed to be about the upcoming high school football merger between the Chicago Catholic League and the East Suburban Catholic Conference beginning in 2019.
While that’s significant, the Oak Park and River Forest football team’s 10-7 win against Glenbard West at Duchon Field in Glen Ellyn Saturday trumps all local sports news over the weekend. Heck, it’s already secured its spot as one of the most memorable stories in OPRF sports this school year.
For years, OPRF football was a sleeping giant. The school always has had tremendous athletes but had trouble getting them to play football in the past. Coupled with mediocre coaching, that combination led to several lean or mediocre records.
In 2011, John Hoerster became head coach. He faced the task of changing the culture of OPRF football and restoring the program’s winning ways. After a 3-6 mark in his first year at OPRF, the Huskies have been in the state playoffs for a school-record seven consecutive seasons under Hoerster.
While there’s no doubt the playoff streak is quite an achievement, OPRF hasn’t advanced past the second round in each of the previous six appearances.
However, I have a feeling that a special postseason could be in store for the Huskies this year.
Beating Glenbard West on its own turf is a major statement. Saturday’s win snapped a 10-game losing streak to the Hilltoppers, long considered the gold standard of the West Suburban Conference Silver Division. It also marks the first time since 2006 that OPRF has left Duchon Field victorious.
Moreover, the win also gives the Huskies a great opportunity to clinch a share of the conference title, which would be the school’s first in 20 years. An OPRF win Friday night at home versus Lyons Township gets it done.
Most importantly, the victory gives the Huskies a tremendous boost of confidence heading into the playoffs. There are several good reasons for the Dog Pound and OPRF fans to feel optimistic.
Led by stalwarts Izaiah Ruffin, Ashford Hollis and Cedric Cheatham, OPRF is athletic, fast and very disciplined on defense. The Huskies are particularly stout against the run which bodes well as the weather turns colder in the playoffs.
Glenbard West coach Chad Hetlet described the OPRF defense as extremely good. He also expressed surprise as to why more people aren’t talking about the Huskies.
On the other side of the ball, OPRF also runs well. Quarterback Jaden McGill has been steady and running back Nazareth Bryant has come on strong down the stretch. In addition, the return of Keith Robinson (72-yard TD run against Glenbard West) gives OPRF another dimension as a triple-threat option at quarterback, running back and wide receiver.
Although the running game is OPRF’s offensive strength, I still feel the Huskies could use a little more balance. Trevon Brown and Craig Shelton are very good receivers capable of making plays at any time. When opponents stack the box to stop the run, either McGill or reserve quarterback Toby Kunkel will need to make opponents pay with crisp, accurate passes to the Huskies’ array of playmakers.
Special teams may be Hoerster’s best since taking over the program. Punter Ethan Reinhardt has been very good lately, while kicker Henry Darrow will be remembered for some time thanks to his game-winning 41-yard field goal against Glenbard West. Bryant and Aidan Shea provide nifty kickoff and punt returns, respectively, and the kick/punt coverage teams have fared well.
Here’s why I feel optimistic about the Huskies’ chances in the Class 8A playoffs. OPRF is truly playing as a team. The players work hard and with a great sense of togetherness. When the offense is down, the defense picks it up, and vice versa. There have been teams with more talent at OPRF recently, but I don’t know if they had the chemistry and camaraderie of the current group.
Finally, the Huskies are playing with a purpose.
Hoerster suffered a major heart attack over the summer. There were questions about him coaching this season. He made a remarkable recovery and has been with the team all season coaching from the press box during games. His story exemplifies determination and perseverance. Undoubtedly, Hoerster’s fighting spirit has inspired the players.
OPRF will find out on Saturday, Oct. 20 which team it faces in the first round of the 8A playoffs.
With so many good teams, 8A annually equates to a challenge resembling World Cup Soccer’s “Group of Death.” But if the Huskies keep playing like they have, I like their chances to finally smash the status quo and enjoy a deep postseason run.