Oak Park and River Forest High School junior Owen Watson takes the snap during football practice last week. Watson is competing with sophomore Johnny Nelson for the Huskies'starting quarterback job. | Carol Dunning

To say that this year’s Oak Park and River Forest High School football team is young and inexperienced would be an understatement.

Only five players who saw significant playing time last season on the varsity, all seniors — offensive lineman Kaden Garland, running back/linebacker Sam Gray, linebacker Bobby Haagenson, defensive back Khalil Nichols and defensive lineman Jeremiah Williams — return for the Huskies.

“Their leadership has been tremendous,” said OPRF coach John Hoerster, now in his 13th season. “They all lead in different ways, but their experience and on-field leadership is important.”

OPRF has the daunting task of finding a replacement at quarterback for three-year starter Jack Gooch, now at Augustana College. Sophomore Johnny Nelson and junior Owen Watson are competing for the job. 

“Both of them are very smart and know football,” Hoerster said. “They’re multi-sport players who know how to compete and are supportive of each other. It’s been a blast working with those two kids.”

Garland admits it’s awkward not having Gooch in the huddle. But he feels both Nelson and Watson have potential to be good.

“I think it’s an advantage because there are certain plays we can do with them,” he said.

Whoever wins the starting quarterback job will have to get quickly acclimated with new receivers. Sophomore Jeremiah Jenkins along with juniors Mikee Vielehr and Matt Winkelhake will look to make an impact at the position.

Jenkins could also share carries in the backfield with Gray, a solid two-way player who is a stalwart at linebacker. Nichols had four interceptions, 40 tackles, four passes defended and a fumble recovery last season.

“I’m feeling good and confident about the season,” Nichols said. “We’ve got to have the right mindset and [the seniors] have to be good leaders, picking up the young guys and pushing them.”

The Huskies play in the West Suburban Conference Silver Division, one of Illinois’ premier football leagues. Last year, conference champion York along with Glenbard West reached the IHSA Class 8A semifinals, while Lyons Township got to the quarterfinals. All return key players and look to be this year’s favorites.

“Up and down, I don’t think there’s a team in the Silver that you can count out,” Hoerster said.

With such a young team, Hoerster realizes the Huskies are bound to make mistakes. But he feels there’s a chance of success this year if they learn quickly from their errors.

“We all make mistakes; it’s how you respond that’s huge,” said Hoerster. “If they’re able to shake them off and play the next play, we’re going to be OK. You want to see how a young team plays under fire.”

OPRF opens the season Aug. 26 versus Fenwick High School at Triton College, with kickoff set for 1:30 p.m. The Huskies rolled past the crosstown rival Friars 35-7 last year at SeatGeek Stadium in the first gridiron meeting between the two since 1989.

2023 OPRF schedule

Aug. 26 at Fenwick, 1:30 p.m.

Sept. 1 vs. LAKE PARK, 6 p.m.

Sept. 8 at Proviso West, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 15 at York, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 22 vs. DOWNERS GROVE NORTH, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 29 vs. LYONS TOWNSHIP, 6 p.m.

Oct. 6 at Willowbrook, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 13 at Hinsdale Central, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 20 vs. GLENBARD WEST, 6 p.m.

(Home games in CAPS)

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