High school football is back in Illinois for the spring, but during the current COVID-19 pandemic, there is a distinct difference from the usual environment that fills stadiums. 

There were no cheerleaders, no drill team, and no Marching Huskies on hand Saturday afternoon for the Oak Park and River Forest High School football team’s home opener against Lyons Township High School. The only spectators in attendance were the family members of the Huskie players. 

Despite the lack of a noisy atmosphere, OPRF (1-1) and LTHS (0-1) put on an intense and hard-fought contest that saw the Huskies hold on for an 18-15 victory.

“It’s bittersweet,” said OPRF head coach John Hoerster of the lack of fans. “I feel fortunate that we got to have a home game and we’re playing a season. But on the other hand, this is a community event, and not having the students, band, cheerleaders and drill team, we missed them. 

“You take the good and the bad and make the best of it, and I thought our kids did a nice job adjusting and keeping the energy up. The crowd picks you up, and when it’s not here, you’ve got to do it yourself.”

The loss spoiled the delayed debut of new LTHS head coach Jon Beutjer, whose Lions saw their opener last week canceled due to COVID-19 protocols. Nevertheless, he seemed pleased with his team’s effort against OPRF, considering the circumstances. 

“We hadn’t played in 18 months, and then we were quarantined. We only had three practices coming out [of quarantine],” he said. “I was really proud of the way they fought and of the energy they had. We hurt ourselves a couple of times, but those are things we can improve on.”

After having a tough debut as the starting quarterback in the previous week’s 42-7 loss at Hinsdale Central, senior Jack Landis bounced back with a solid effort for the Huskies, throwing for two touchdowns, a 31-yard strike to Ryan McFadden and a 12-yard toss to Francis Krusinski. Junior Demetrius Dortch had OPRF’s other touchdown, a run from 1 yard out.

Hoerster cited Landis’ experience as the main reason for winning the quarterback job.

“With a really short time to prepare for the season, we needed a guy who had an understanding of what we were doing,” Hoerster explained. “When you have all summer, you can teach a kid how to play a position, but with only two weeks, you really can’t do that. Jack is a senior and has more experience than the other guys.”

Defensively, Naahlyee Bryant spearheaded a strong OPRF defensive effort, recording multiple tackles for loss. Owen Detmer (interception) and Malcolm Gray (sack and a fumble recovery) also turned in notable performances. 

Bryant, a Western Michigan signee, also displayed excellent vocal leadership, showing why he was voted a captain for the past two seasons. 

“Naahlyee is a great kid,” said Hoerster. “We’ve asked him to do a whole lot this year; he’s playing offense and special teams too. It’s hard to do on a short year like this because the kids aren’t in the same type of shape that they usually are. You can only ask certain types of kids to put in that amount of energy, and Naahlyee is absolutely one of those guys.”

LTHS made things interesting late, as junior quarterback Joey Antonietti threw touchdown passes to senior wide receiver Tommy Asleson on back-to-back possessions, the latter coming with 41.4 seconds remaining. But the ensuing onside kick was recovered by OPRF, dashing any hope the Lions had for completing the comeback. 

“It feels awesome to get back out here with all the guys,” Antonietti said. “Coach Beutjer told us to keep hammering, and that’s what the offense finally started to do at the end. I think if we do that [from the start], we can win a lot of games.”

“They’re just happy to be playing,” added Beutjer. “They’re very resilient and have been through a lot. They’ve learned tough lessons at a very young age. We’re going to build off of this, and I feel had we earlier displayed the intensity and aggressiveness on offense, this could’ve been a different outcome.”

Similar to how Beutjer feels about his Lions, Hoerster knows there’s plenty of room for improvement with his Huskies. But he was pleased with the outcome.

“Any time you come away with a win, you’re happy about it,” he said. “We made it out of here against a really good team. The LT staff got their kids ready to go and they did a nice job.”

In observance of the Passover holiday, the next games for both OPRF and LTHS will fall on Thursday, April 1. The Huskies will host Proviso West, which has yet to play due to COVID-19 protocols, while the Lions visit Leyden Township.

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