OPRF sophomore quarterback Jaden McGill has guided the Huskies to a 7-2 record, share of a conference title, and a berth in the Class 8A state playoffs. (Photo by Carol Dunning)

The Oak Park and River Forest High School football team clinched a share of the West Suburban Conference Silver Division championship with a 48-0 rout of visiting Lyons Township on Friday. The impressive victory marks the first time since 1998 that OPRF has been at the top of the conference.

“It sounds very good,” said OPRF coach John Hoerster about being sharing the conference title with Glenbard West and Hinsdale Central. “It’s got a good ring to it.”

Sophomore quarterback Jaden McGill echoed his head coach’s sentiments.

“It feels amazing,” McGill said. “To be honest, we deserved it. We’ve worked since February and we’ve got a lot of good talent on this team. We played hard all season and this is the result.”

The evening began with an emotional scene before the opening kickoff.

A young man named Ben Newbury, who is in the Oak Park-River Forest Best Buddies program, dressed in uniform and lined up in  the backfield. With players from both schools participating, Newbury got the handoff and ran up the middle into the end zone. Players from both teams escorted him all the way.

“Benny has been a part of our program for some time now,” Hoerster said. “He’s a wonderful kid who brings so much positivity and life to practice every day and on the sidelines every game. We felt we had to give something back to him because he gives so much to us.”

Friday’s game also marked the first time this season that Hoerster coached from the sideline instead of the press box. Undoubtedly, his field presence gave the Huskies an emotional boost. After the game, he expressed appreciation. 

“It felt great, you have no idea,” Hoerster said about being with his players during a game. “The kids were so great; they made my return a special one.”

With conference standings implications at stake, OPRF got off to a fast start. The Huskies marched down the field on their opening drive, culminating it on a 34-yard touchdown run by junior running back Nazareth Bryant. Henry Darrow’s extra point gave OPRF a 7-0 lead at the 9:44 mark of the first quarter. 

On the Lions’ first drive, a long touchdown pass from J.J. Dutton to Tay Dextra was nullified due to an illegal block penalty. The Lions ultimately turned the ball over on downs at the OPRF 24-yard line. 

On OPRF’s next possession, McGill capped off another scoring march with a 4-yard touchdown run that was set up by Bryant’s 42-yard run. Darrow’s PAT raised the score to 14-0 Huskies after one quarter. 

“It was tough,” Hoerster said about preparing for LTHS after last week’s win at Glenbard West. “We had an emotional win and the last thing you want is a letdown. You want to keep surging and keep heading in a positive direction.

“We’ve got some great senior leaders,” he added.”We had a great week of practice and we were very focused. We knew this was just another step heading towards where we want to go. We wanted to keep moving forward.”

Fresh off his game-winning 41-yard field goal against Glenbard West, Darrow continued his momentum in the second quarter with a pair of successful field goals from 33 and 40 yards. The second field goal extended the Huskies’ lead to 20-0 at the 3:20 mark of the second quarter. 

Meanwhile, the Huskies’ defense not only settled down after a shaky opening series, but gradually became dominant. LTHS running back Tyrone Smith and the other Lions ball carriers rarely had room to operate. Dutton, who threw multiple interceptions, was constantly pressured by the OPRF pass rush.

Similar to coach Matt Maloney and the OPRF basketball team’s defensive style of “Huskie Havoc,” the Huskies’ defense wreaked havoc on the Lions and forced a pair of turnovers.

First, Dutton was stripped of the ball trying to evade a tackler, and the fumble was recovered by OPRF defensive end Jared Schainis at the LTHS 38. Gifted excellent field position,  Bryant took it to the house from 20 yards out to boost the OPRF lead to 27-0 with 1:28 left before halftime. 

Dutton committed another turnover when he threw an interception to junior linebacker Daemyen Middlebrooks at the OPRF 42. McGill quickly led the Huskies down the field, and a terrific twisting catch by Craig Shelton at the LTHS 1 set up McGill’s 1-yard leap into the end zone with 2.8 seconds left. The PAT by Darrow made it 34-0 Huskies at the half.

After the defense forced another punt to start the second half, OPRF backup quarterback Toby Kunkel (who was on the field in the first half with McGill for several plays) led the Huskies on another scoring march. He ended the drive on his 3-yard TD run. The PAT made it 41-0 Huskies at the 7:10 mark of the third quarter. A running clock was used the rest of the game. 

Sean Barney, the Huskies’ third-string quarterback, concluded the scoring in the fourth quarter with a 3-yard TD run. 

Per program tradition, the OPRF players, coaches and their families will gather at the school Saturday night to watch the Illinois High School Association state football playoff pairings show. The Huskies will find out their opponent, as well as where they will play. While navigating through Class 8A will be difficult, McGill feels OPRF is ready and equipped for the challenge. 

“I’m really confident going in (the playoffs),” McGill said. “Our team is confident going in. We’ve gotten a few challenging wins this season. As a team, we’ve bonded very good.”

The Huskies host New Trier this weekend in a first-round game of the Class 8A state playoffs (Time TBD).

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