Almost seven months after its usual kickoff date, the Illinois High School Association football season will finally commence on March 19.
There was concern among players and coaches that the COVID-19 pandemic might have wiped out an entire season. But last month, the Illinois Department of Public Health along with Gov. J.B Pritzker approved the resumption of all youth sports — including football — once a region advanced to Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois reopening program.
Both Oak Park and River Forest High School head coach John Hoerster and new Fenwick High School head coach Matt Battaglia are appreciative of having a season, albeit a shorter one.
“Everybody was very excited to get an opportunity to play. I think we all really missed each other,” said Hoerster, entering his 11th year as the Huskies’ head coach.
“We were just excited for an opportunity to be together as a team,” added Battaglia. “Obviously, everyone wished we could have had a normal season, but I think the guys did an outstanding job staying focused on the things that they could control.”
Here is a look at the 2020-21 football teams for each school, beginning with OPRF:
The Huskies went 4-5 during 2019, missing the IHSA playoffs for the first time since Hoerster’s debut season in 2011.
Although there won’t be postseason play this spring, OPRF returns several veterans with experience and adds some good talent which is young and inexperienced.
The top returning player in the program is Naahlyee Bryant. A three-year starter at defensive end/linebacker for the Huskies, the Western Michigan signee is expected to see plenty of time on both sides of the ball. Classmate Jake Birmingham (Valparaiso recruit) teams up with Bryant to form a solid 1-2 punch in the linebacker corps.
Amarion Jones is a physical run-stopper on the OPRF defensive line, while Ryan McFaddin is a jack-of-all-trades that helps out in the back seven. Newcomers Timmy Spillane and Henry Thompson also look to play key roles in the defense.
The Huskies’ offense has some good talent to build around, including wide receivers Eric Locke and Jemari Smith-Payton, running back Kelby Gray and center Cole Robertson, a sophomore entering his second season as a varsity starter. Demetrius Dortch will compete for time with Gray at running back, and Henry Spillane looks to be a key contributor as well.
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The biggest question mark for OPRF is at quarterback. Jaden McGill, who was the starter the last two seasons, has transferred to Naperville Central, thus creating an open competition for the job. Senior Jack Landis, junior Drew Kunkel and sophomore Jack Gooch are the contenders.
The Huskies play in the rugged West Suburban Conference Silver Division, and even with the pandemic the league is as tough as ever. OPRF faces the two teams favored by most to win the Silver on bookends of the schedule. The Huskies travel to Hinsdale Central on March 19, then to Glenbard West to end the season on April 24.
The fact that there are no playoffs this spring doesn’t take away from the program’s annual goals, according to Hoerster.
“Our approach is the same as it’s always been. We want to create a positive environment that helps our athletes grow on and off the field, we want to make every day a joy and a challenge and we want to make every player feel important and valued because they all are,” he said.
However, with the pandemic having delayed the season, Hoerster also wants his team to cherish the time they have with each other, because no one knows for sure what the future holds.
“Treat every practice and game like it could be their last,” he said. “Last year, the world changed without any notice. We don’t want to take anything for granted.”
The year 2019 marked the debut of a super-talented sophomore class for Fenwick football, led by quarterback Kaden Cobb, wide receivers Eian Pugh and Max Reese and center Jimmy Liston among others.
The Friars qualified for the IHSA Class 5A playoffs, but then saw head coach Gene Nudo get suddenly dismissed from his duties before their first playoff game against Payton College Prep. Under interim coach Titcus Pettigrew, the Friars defeated the Grizzlies, but then fell to visiting Hillcrest 28-7 in the second round.
New head coach Matt Battaglia comes to Fenwick after being a graduate assistant at Kent State. And he’s thankful to be able to have some games this spring.
“Our approach is to take everything day by day and get better,” he said. “Both of those are huge, but I think the thing this team wants to do more than anything else is compete.”
Battaglia has plenty of cause for optimism as the upperclassmen are a talented group. In addition to the aforementioned players, there are a lot of juniors expected to be key contributors, including running backs Danny Kent and Jacque Walls, wide receiver Bryan Hunt, offensive tackle Rasheed Anderson, defensive lineman Quin Wieties and defensive back Denium Juette.
And there is also a strong senior class headlined by running back Isaac Novak and wide receiver Jonas Capek. Declan Donnelly, Billy McGee and Nick Polston supply additional depth.
Other newcomers to watch for are Suleiman Abuaqel, Pat Durkin, Aaron Johnson, Conor Paris and Marty Paris.
Battaglia wants the Friars to have fun, play fast and compete. And compete they will as their schedule is extremely challenging. The good news? The first two games are at Triton College. The not-so-good news? They’re against two traditional powerhouses — Nazareth Academy and Joliet Catholic.
It’s a daunting task to be sure. But it’s not one Battaglia and the Friars are backing down from.
“This team wants to be great,” said Battaglia. “It’s a great opportunity to compete against two programs that have helped establish what great looks like at [the high school] level.”