After a 3-3 record during a pandemic shortened season last spring, the Oak Park and River Forest High School football team returns this fall seeking to return to the Illinois High School Association playoffs for the first time since 2018.
Despite losing valuable contributors such as Naahlyee Bryant (now playing at Western Michigan), the Huskies have several returning players that look to restore a tradition of success that has been established during coach John Hoerster’s tenure.
OPRF returns eight starters from the spring, including senior wide receiver Eric Locke, senior running backs Demetrius Dortch and Kelby Gray, junior center Cole Robertson, senior offensive linemen Andrew Delgado and Connor Heinne and senior linebackers Owen Detmer and Henry Spillane.
As was the case in the spring, there is a battle for the starting quarterback job. Hoerster said both junior Jack Gooch and Dortch will split time at the position.
“We’re going to use them in different ways. They’re both really talented kids who can play several positions,” said Hoerster.
The Huskies are home for the first three games (and four of the first five), which normally would mean a good chance to get off to a fast start. However, OPRF faces perennial powerhouse Wheaton-Warrenville South on Aug. 27, followed by Glenbard West on Sept. 10 and Hinsdale Central on Sept. 24. The latter two teams are widely considered co-favorites in the tough West Suburban Silver Conference.
For now, OPRF is solely focused on Wheaton-Warrenville South in the home opener on Friday night. The Tigers have long been a dominant program in the Chicagoland area, and Hoerster knows they’ll present a serious challenge.
“We’ve got to prepare and take things day-by-day,” Hoerster said. “Wheaton-Warrenville South is a tremendous program.”
One thing is certain, with fans being allowed to return this fall, the Huskies are sure to get a boost from having the cheerleaders, drill team, Marching Huskies and Dog Pound student section back inside Oak Park Stadium.
“The kids love being back in school, and the energy (Friday night) is going to be tremendous,” said Hoerster. “I’m excited for not only the players, but the students; they’re excited to have that bit of normalcy back.”
Defense key to Friars’ success this fall
After having their first game in the spring with Nazareth Academy canceled due to Covid-19 protocols and subsequent losses to Joliet Catholic and Marmion Academy, the Friars finished last season strong with three consecutive victories, including back-to-back shutouts of Leo and St. Ignatius.
Fenwick’s defense was the key to those wins and with eight returning starters, including Minnesota State recruit Jacque Walls, a cornerback, Fenwick coach Matt Battaglia believes it’s carried the momentum over to fall camp.
“Their football IQ is off the charts,” he said of the defense. “They’re college-level smart.”
The Friars’ offense largely struggled during the spring, especially once quarterback Kaden Cobb went down with an injury. But the senior, who has committed to Ball State University, is now healthy and hoping to provide a spark to the unit, which has two other NCAA Division I commits in wide receivers Eian Pugh (Illinois) and Max Reese (Eastern Michigan).
“We’re still a work in progress. We’ve got a lot of things to clean up,” said Battaglia after a scrimmage Aug. 20. “I think we showed flashes, [but] we’ve got to make sure all sides are clicking at the same time. Then we have a chance to be real special.”
The Friars face another difficult schedule, opening at home at Triton College on Aug. 27 against Morgan Park, which features plenty of young talent that is drawing the attention of several major college recruiters.
“People are saying [Morgan Park] should be a win, but we know they’re going to be a good, well-coached team and we’re expecting a good, hard-fought game,” Battaglia said.
Other notable games for the Friars are at home versus Notre Dame on Sept.3, at Providence on Sept. 10, and home against Loyola Academy on Sept. 24.
Fenwick will compete in the Chicago Catholic League/East Suburban Catholic Conference White division along with De La Salle, Marmion and St. Ignatius.