The cycle of prep sports never ends when the school year does. And while basketball, soccer and baseball traditionally take up the June portion of summer camps, workouts and competitions, the week after Independence Day annually marks the unofficial start of prep football.
Nearly all 15 local schools held some form of camp, workouts or 7-on-7 competitions — some schools all three. With today marking just 48 days until the first Friday night lights of the year, excitement is starting to brew on gridirons around the area.
Defending the crown
Milford-Cissna Park may have lost a handful of core contributors from last year’s squad, the first-ever Illinois 8-Man Football Association state champions, but that doesn’t mean coach Clint Schwartz is expecting anything less from the 2019 squad as they hit the ground running with camp this week.
“We did lose a really good group of seniors but we have a good group of new seniors stepping up,” Schwartz said. “This year, you see kids stepping up and trying to fill those roles.
“They already know what to do in terms of X’s and O’s, it’s just a matter of that leadership taking the next step.”
At this time last year, coaches and players around the Bearcats’ program faced plenty of uncertainty as they prepared for the inaugural season of 8-man football in Illinois.
But one year and one state title later, the defending champs have a much better grasp on what to expect, both on the field and in the coaches office.
“I think going through a whole year, figuring out what you like, what you want to do and what you can do is helpful,” Schwartz said. “Guys know exactly what we’re gonna do, so we can coach technique, more small details that may have been overlooked last year because there were so many big items.”
The biggest byproduct of last year’s success has been seen tangibly. After having 27 players on last year’s roster, the Bearcats have opened camp with 35 players this season, an increase Schwartz is thrilled with.
“Obviously, when you win, it attracts kids to your program,” Schwartz said. “Our numbers are up and kids are excited.
“We’re (48) days away today and the kids wish it was next week, but we still have things we need to work on.”
McNamara, Coal City return quarterbacks and supporting casts
The Bearcats weren’t the only program that played for a championship last year, as Bishop McNamara was last year’s IHSA Class 4A runner up.
Although reigning Daily Journal Player of the Year Tyshon King will be suiting up for Northern Michigan University this year, the cupboard is anything but bare for coach Rich Zinanni and the Irish.
Senior quarterback Tyler Hiller is back for his third season as the varsity signal-caller, while talented two-way players such as Manny Harris, Damien Thornton, Caleb Smith and Owen Jackson are all back as well.
Zinanni said last year’s success, and the returning talent from that team, have caused excitement for the Irish this summer.
“It’s been great because they’re very enthused,” Zinanni said. “They’ve got the feeling of going deep in the playoffs and we have more kids out for football than we have in a long time.”
Two of the most important returning players for the Irish reside in the trenches, in offensive linemen Isaac Ruder and Nick Viglia. Zinanni said that not only are their tangible talents important to the team’s success this season, but also their leadership.
“Both of them are great,” Zinanni said. “They were around all summer for the kids camps and we’ve been practicing together with the freshmen and sophomores so the younger kids can learn from them.”
In Coal City, where the Irish will travel for a week two behemoth nonconference game, similar excitement for the season ahead is held.
Like the Irish, senior quarterback Payton Hutchings is back for his third season on varsity, as is tight end/wide receiver hybrid and middle linebacker Austin Pullara.
“Having that experience back pays big dividends,” coach Dan Hutchinngs said. “The learning curve at the positions those guys play in middle linebacker and quarterback has been pretty easy.”
The younger Hutchings figures to have plenty of weapons aside from Pullara in running back Daniel Jezik, wide receiver/running back Asa Cooper and tight end Brady Crawford to name a few, with Crawford also factoring in as one of the area’s elite defensive linemen.
When also adding in elite returning talents like Jack Bunton in the middle of the defense and returning linemen like Gavin Elrod in the trenches, the Coalers are blessed with plenty of depth, which in turn adds a level of competitiveness to practice.
“The competitiveness makes the practices better, it raises the level of practice,” coach Hutchings said. “It’s like in the wrestling room when you have two kids at comparable weight classes that are state contenders — it just makes the whole team better.”
Although scores of talented two-way players return for the Coalers, there doesn’t seem to be any issue of players battling for attention or spotlight, which coach Hutchings said is a Coal City program tradition.
“Going back to when Ken Miller was the coach, when Lenny (Onsen) was the coach, it’s always been that it’s a program — nobody’s bigger than anybody else,” coach Hutchings said. “It’s a humble group and we want to keep it that way.”
Boilers have eyes set on playoff return
After racking up 19 wins in a two-year stretch between 2015 and 2016, Bradley-Bourbonnais has struggled to get back to that high level of competitiveness, winning a combined six games the past two seasons.
But don’t tell that to coach Mike Kohl, whose Boilers just wrapped up one of the strongest camps Kohl has been a part of in Boiler red.
“It’s exciting right now in camp because our junior class is really good — they went 7-2 last season,” Kohl said. “They bring a lot of competitiveness to practice and these first four days have been as competitive as we’ve ever had.
“No spots are really solidified yet … a lot of guys are battling for positions and we’ve got 68 varsity guys right now, a lot of them that can play and get after it.”
The Boilers play in what is traditionally one of the state’s most superior conferences, the SouthWest Suburban Conference. With three perennial bottom-dwellers in the conference — Thornridge, Thornton and Thornwood — leaving the SWSC in favor of the Southland Conference, Kohl knows the conference will be even more competitive in 2019.
“We’ve really gotta get after it and the goal is to get in the 7A playoffs,” Kohl said. “I felt like the past two years, if we could have gotten in there, we could have made some noise, so it’s just about getting in (the playoffs).
“I’ve always said as a coach and I’ve learned more as I’ve gotten older, but your team’s only as good as who you play and we’re playing a really tough schedule.”
Change of Hart
Kankakee is the area’s only school that inherited a new head coach in the offseason, as Derek Hart took over the reigns from Omar Grant, who is now on the staff at Bradley-Bourbonnais.
Hart knows plenty about winning — he was a two-time state champion quarterback in Indiana as a high schooler and spent the past three seasons working as the offensive coordinator for Indiana High School legend, and Hart’s father, John Hart at Brownsburg High School in Brownsburg, Ind.
While state title aspirations may not be mature in the minds of the Kays quite yet, Hart has been impressed with the start his squad has gotten of to.
“It’s going well so far — the numbers have been well, commitment has been well,” Hart said. “The administration has been really supportive of the program and I have no complaints.
“There’s a lot of work left to be done, but we’re off to a good start with numbers and the consistency of kids showing up.”
For Hart, that consistency has been seen for more than six months now. Aside from coaching the football team, Hart also has a full-time position at the school as the head of the weight room and training program, a program that has seen plenty of football players taking advantage of.
“I came in in January and in offseason stuff, we really tried to push kids to getting in there, and they turned up,” Hart said. “This summer has been even better with kids showing up.”
Hart knows that as a new coach, the first summer is arguably the most important, both in the short term and the long term. And with the dedication he has seen from his roster, led by returners in the offensive backfield with quarterback Tyjuane Stewart and running back Mattias Clark, Hart said the Kays are where they want to be.
“This is the biggest piece to get things going and to get kids to buy in,” Hart said. “And I think we are so far.”
Herscer, Watseka two of many schools to link for 7-on-7
The opening week of summer football hasn’t been limited to just camps. For schools like Herscher and Watseka, the second week of July has brought some competition from the outside, as the two schools were part of a four-team 7-on-7 competition in Watseka Wednesday, joined by South Newton and Tr-County from Indiana.
“I like to see us progress in practice by putting things in and working on them, but the nice thing about this is you get to compete and see if you can translate what you learned into competition,” Watseka coach Aaron Hilgendorf said. “You might know it on a white board or in practice in a drill, but can you compete against someone else in another jersey is the question.”
Going into his fourth season as head coach, Hilgendorf has a full group, from seniors to freshmen, that have only known his brand of high school football, which has made the learning process a bit smoother this summer, especially with his eight seniors.
“They know the system and don’t know any different — good or bad, whatever it is,” Hilgendorf said. “There’s only eight of them, but six of them have been here four years and know the system and are ready to be leaders.”
For the Tigers and coach Dan Wetzel, this summer bares a lot of similarities to last summer — a new cast of characters looking to make another deep postseason push.
After the 2017 squad made a run to the IHSA Class 4A state quarterfinals, an almost entirely new core of Tigers answered the plethora of questions they were faced with by advancing all the way to the Class 3A state semifinals.
Wetzel said that last year’s team that went from relative unknowns to state contenders has inspired confidence in this year’s youthful bunch.
“When these kids come out, they feel really good about being able to win a lot of games,” Wetzel said. “As long as they listen and do what they’re supposed to do, we put them in a situation to succeed and they feel good about that.”
With so many unknowns, summer work is nearly as important for a veteran coach like Wetzel as it is for Hart and Kankakee. What is becoming a yearly tradition of building up an entirely new squad is something Wetzel has come to enjoy.
“It’s kind of a tradition we’re getting going here, a culture we’re trying to change and we’re moving in the right direction,” Wetzel said. “What I’ve seen so far here in the summer, I’m liking what I’m seeing.
“There’s a lot of new faces, but a high ceiling.”