No current area coaches have sniffed the success levels Wilmington’s Jeff Reents and Bishop McNamara’s Rich Zinanni have reached. Reents has 216 career wins, 42nd most in state history; few coaches in America have won as many games as Zinanni, whose 341 wins are third in state history.
All of those wins, along with six state championships, another five title game appearances and 58 playoff appearances were on the same field in Wilmington on Tuesday, when Zinanni and the Irish took on the Wildcats in 7-on-7 action.
“It’s always good to play a fundamentally sound team like Wilmington, who’s good both defensively and offensively,” Zinanni said. “They’re well-coached, they don’t make mistakes, so it’s really good for the timing of your passing game.”
But x’s and o’s aside, Tuesday’s meeting marked the reunion of not just two football coaching legends, but two friends.
Reents, who began his stint at Wilmington in 1994, nearly two full decades after Zinanni took over for the Irish in 1975, said Zinanni served as motivation and inspiration for him when he was a young coach.
“I’ve been doing it for 26 years and I’ve been looking up to him for 36 years — he’s as good asthey get,” Reents said. “He’s helped me immensely through my career and I appreciate that.”
The two struck up a bit of a bond over the years, but Zinanni said that bond has become even tighter the past handful of years, after a summer day that blossomed a cordial relationship into a friendship.
“He came over and saw me three or four years ago, wanting to learn about how to run the program,” Zinanni said. “I’m not sure what he took out of that half a day we spent together, but it’s created a pretty good friendship.
“He’s highly regarded in the IHSA and the coaching profession, so I was glad to be a part of that discussion with him and Wilmington’s lucky to have him.”
On the field, the two teams exchanged 10-play sequences with quarterbacks and skill players, which meant all passing plays. For a team like the Wildcats, who almost exclusively play out of the old-school wishbone formation and threw a total of 56 passes last season, Tuesday’s opportunity to air the ball out gave Reents and the Wildcats different looks on both sides of the ball.
“People probably look at us and say, ‘Why do they do 7-on-7?’ because we just run it,” Reents said. “But first off, it gives our defense some good looks because we’ll see some good passing (teams) in the fall.
“And (quarterback) Keaton (Hopwood), we threw a lot of routes at him and our receivers. Sometimes we were good from it and sometimes we learned from it.”
Hopwood said that along with playing against different schemes and getting more throwing practice, the Irish’s massive size will also help them.
“We don’t throw the ball a lot, but coming out here and throwing a lot really helps,” Hopwood said. “This will help a lot against Oak Lawn, stuff like that. These guys out here are bigger and it helps us.”
And for the Irish, Tuesday provided an opportunity to see different offensive looks out of the wishbone, as well as different forms of playactions and other offensive plays.
“We need (the practice) because other teams do that,” Zinanni said. “It helped us learn bootlegs, re-routing, things like that.”
Wildcats excited for fall
Last year’s Wilmington squad reached the playoffs for the 23rd-straight season, but quickly bowed out on a heartbreaking four-point loss at Monmouth-Roseville.
The hunger is back for the Wildcats, as evidenced by the dedication Reents has seen from his group this summer.
“The first thing I always look at at the end of the summer is the attendance board and the attendance board has been filled,” Reents said. “Our kids have been in the weight room like they should, we just wrapped up a three week camp, so overall, it’s been very successful for us.”
Gone from last year’s squad are talents such as 1,300-plus yard running back Conner Dempsay and fellow backfield mate Sam Hafner, but players such as Hopwood and running backs Trey Shaw and Jake Rodawald are back in the fold, which has given Reents reason for excitement.
“Every year, we’ve got somebody to replace — this year, it’s Conner and Sammy,” Reents said. “The question is, ‘Who’s going to step up?’
“Hopefully Trey can do that, Keaton can and Rodawald’s a three-year starter, so hopefully those guys can take those spots.”
Hopwood, who quarterbacked the Wildcats despite recovery from arm issues, is excited to take one more leap as a senior this fall, his last where he will take part in the legendary Wilmington tradition of running through a nearby wooded area, through a parade of motorcycles and onto the field.
“I’m so excited, especially Friday nights here, you can’t beat it,” Hopwood said. “Just running down the hill and out into the motorcycles, it’s great.”