The Oak Park and River Forest High School football team had a special season last year in more ways than one.
Head coach John Hoerster recovered from a life-threatening heart attack during the summer of 2018. While there was some uncertainty if he could coach the team, Hoerster worked the season opener from the press box and returned to the sideline in Week 9.
Hoerster's determination during the recovery process inspired the Huskies, who finished 8-3, defeated New Trier 34-16 in the Class 8A state playoffs and clinched a share of the West Suburban Conference Silver Division title along with Glenbard West and Hinsdale Central. OPRF earned its first conference championship since 1998.
The season's best moment last year occurred on Oct. 12 when Henry Darrow's 43-yard field goal in the closing seconds lifted OPRF to a 10-7 win at Glenbard West, (the first time the Huskies defeated the Hilltoppers since 2007 and also their first victory at Duchon Field in since 1998).
The Huskies enter this season with a talented roster largely void of experience. But Hoerster – who's feeling healthy now – feels that if the team develops a solid work ethic, another successful year will be the result.
"[August 30] will be the first time most of these guys step on a varsity field," Hoerster said. "Hard work beats talent. We can have all the talent in the world, but it has to be backed up with work ethic and studying film. If you're filling the wrong gap, running the wrong route or making a mistake in coverage, your talent won't help you. We have to make sure they understand their jobs and assignments."
Even with an inexperienced roster, OPRF is highly regarded in the area as a ranked team in multiple polls. The few returning starters the Huskies have (5 total: 4 offense/1 defense) are among the best players in the West Suburban Silver.
For example, quarterback Jaden McGill enjoyed a solid 2018 season as a sophomore starter.
"Jaden is a versatile player who from an offensive perspective always has the capability of making a play," he said. "Not only within the scheme of our offense, but when things break down, he's able to make something out of nothing. From a defensive standpoint, he's physical, has tremendous cover skills and tackles well. Jaden's just a solid football player who still hasn't come close to reaching his full potential."
Running back Nazareth Bryant, who came on strong down the stretch for the Huskies last fall, looks primed for a big season.
"Naz has the potential to be one of the best backs we've had at OPRF." Hoerster said. "He's a hard worker, leader and role model for our younger players. Naz is very coachable and an amazing young man who has taken advantage of what he's been given."
The Huskies have to replace the interior of their offensive line, but senior tackles Fabian Gonzalez and Luke Elwart should serve as good mentors for the newcomers.
"Fabian and Luke are two good, smart players who are technicians and good leaders," Hoerster said. "We also have a mix of younger guys who are doing a good job of picking up the concepts of what we do offensively. We're going to have nice competition for the remaining spots not only going into Week 1 but throughout the season."
Senior Erik Skala has the most returning experience at wide receiver. There are some intriguing players in contention for the other positions, including seniors Gavin Tunney and Jaylen Davis, junior Jared Smith-Payton and sophomore Eric Locke. Locke's length reminds Hoerster of OPRF alum Jared Scott (now playing at Prairie View A&M after a stint at Wyoming).
Only one starter returns on defense for OPRF, but he's a good one - linebacker Daemyen Middlebrooks.
"Daemyen is just a really good high school football player," Hoerster said. "He looks, talks and walks the part and brings a lot of leadership to the defense."
Junior defensive end Naahlyee Bryant (Nazareth's younger brother) played in certain packages as a sophomore.
"We think Naahlyee is going to be an impact player for us. He's very athletic and can make some big-time plays," Hoerster said.
Senior linebacker Malik Donaly is another player with some varsity experience that's expected to see more playing time. Senior Toby Kunkel, the team's backup quarterback, will also play safety. Other players defensive coordinator Tim Fischer hopes will step up are junior linebacker Jake Birmingham, junior defensive lineman Amarion Jones and senior defensive lineman Evan Failor.
Stephon Carr, Vaughn Dunbar, Jack Landis, and Glen Cobb ensure a deeo linebacking corps, while Stephen Waltower, Eddie Wilson adn Henry Detmer fortify the secondary.
"We are losing arguably our greatest defense in our nine years here, so we have some work to do," said defensive coordinator Tim Fischer, "but I like the group. They have really worked and come together this spring and summer. I think this year we will have to be more aggressive to force mistakes.
"I have liked the competition thus far the last few months," Fischer added. "The second-team guys are very close to the first-team guys, so that has kept guys sharp."
Newcomer Jalen Bates should help augment the secondary. He's a transfer student/junior defensive back from Immaculate Conception (which won the Class 4A state title last season). Bates played football his freshman year at Fenwick.
"Jalen is a talented young man," Hoerster said. "He's got some good varsity experience and he'll help us a lot of corner. He's found his way back to Oak Park and has done a good job."
The Huskies will be tested right away with a pair of challenging nonconference matchups – Aug. 30 at Waubonsie Valley, followed by their home opener at Oak Park Stadium against Willowbrook Sept. 6. Waubonsie Valley defeated OPRF 24-17 in Week 1 last season, while Willowbrook has advanced to the state quarterfinals three consecutive years.
OPRF should compete for the league title with fellow 2018 champions – Glenbard West and Hinsdale Central.
"Every single week is going to be a battle," Hoerster said. "We don't have a week to take off, so the message we're focusing on with the kids is to take things one day at a time. We're going to be young and inexperienced, but we have talent that we're very excited about."
Answer Book 2019
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