With so many young and inexperienced players, competing in the perennially strong West Suburban Conference Silver Division figured to be a challenge this season for the Oak Park and River Forest High School football team.
This was vividly illustrated on Sept. 15 as the Huskies visited defending conference champion York. While OPRF had a few bright spots, the more experienced Dukes gradually pulled away for a 56-28 victory.
“York is really good,” said OPRF coach John Hoerster. “Every time we made a play and got some energy, they’d come back and have a big play. You try to stick around against a really good team like that, but you just can’t give up big plays, and we gave up a couple too many.”
York (4-0, 1-0 in WSC Silver) jumped out to a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter. But after the Dukes’ second score, OPRF (1-3, 1-1) responded on the next play from scrimmage with an 80-yard touchdown pass from Johnny Nelson to Matt Winkelhake.
After York scored on the ensuing drive, the Huskies had another quick counter as Khalil Nichols took a shovel pass from Nelson and raced untouched 61 yards for the touchdown to make the score 21-13 with 6:14 left in the first half.
But on the following kickoff, the Dukes pulled off a game-changing play as Chris Danko took the ball and scooted down the OPRF sideline for a 99-yard touchdown return. It was the second time this season that the Huskies allowed a maximum-distance kickoff return, the other being Lake Park’s Matthew Rodriguez’s game-winner on Sept. 1.
“It was a backbreaker,” Hoerster said. “As soon as we got some momentum, that killed us.”
Then after an OPRF punt pinned York on its 6, Dukes quarterback Sean Winton connected with Luke Mailander for a school-record 94-yard touchdown pass. York added another score just before halftime and took a commanding 42-13 lead.
The teams each had a pair of touchdowns in the second half. The Huskies’ scores came on a 73-yard kickoff return by Winkelhake in the third quarter and a 34-yard pass from Owen Watson to Matt Megher in the fourth quarter.
Hoerster lauded the play of Winkelhake, a junior wide receiver/defensive back who had two receptions for 94 yards.
“Matt Winkelhake has done a really great job for us this year,” he said. “He doesn’t come off the field; he’s our Mr. Everything for us.”
After missing the previous two games due to an injury suffered against Fenwick in Week One, Nelson showed a little rust, completing just 6-of-19 passes for 168 yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions. Nevertheless, Hoerster was pleased to get his starting quarterback back.
“Johnny looked great,” he said. “It’s tough when you have an injury and can’t get those reps in practice. Last week was his first full week of practice and he was definitely rusty, but he’s going to be a really good player. He made some plays with his feet and arm, and having Johnny back means we can have Owen play more defense. That opens things up for us.”
Junior linebacker Hugh Vanek had a good night at York with a team-high 12 tackles.
Things don’t get easier this week as OPRF hosts Downers Grove North for Homecoming. However, Hoerster is optimistic an expected large crowd will provide the Huskies an energy boost.
“I saw some good things out of our kids [at York]; hopefully we can build off of those positives and translate them into a good Homecoming game,” he said.
Kickoff is 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 22 at Oak Park Stadium.