July 23rd, 2019 2:02 PM
After a promising debut under center in 2018, OPRF junior quarterback Jaden McGill enters the upcoming season as the Huskies' unquestioned leader on offense. | Photo by Carol Dunning
By Melvin Tate
Although it wasn't an actual high school football game (the matchup local fans have been clamoring for a long time) OPRF and Fenwick met on the gridiron, July 17. Along with traditional powers Mount Carmel and Joliet Catholic Academy, the crosstown rivals squared off in a series of 7-on-7 competitions at Oak Park Stadium.
Afterward, OPRF head coach John Hoerster and Fenwick head coach Gene Nudo felt their respective squads got better as a result of the scrimmage.
"You don't get a lot of information because it's kind of limited in terms of actual football," said Hoerster about the 7-on-7 format, in which linemen do not participate. "I thought the kids did all right. We've got a really young group and they're still learning and putting everything together in terms of the mental aspect."
Nudo added: "It was great. Every year, we get invited over by Coach Hoerster and it's a very spirited competition. So many of our guys know their guys. I have a great amount of respect for Coach Hoerster. John's a good guy, and his kids follow him like our kids follow me. We got through it with no issues and all the teams got in some good work."
Having Joliet Catholic (the 2018 IHSA Class 5A champion) and Mount Carmel (2018 Class 7A semifinalist) participate only served to increase the level of competition. Collectively, the Hilltoppers (14) and Caravan (12) have won 26 state championships.
"I still have really close friends who I coached with at Mount Carmel. We have guys on our coaching staff with connections to Joliet Catholic," Hoerster said. "I've known Gene and his staff at Fenwick for a long time. They're three very good Catholic League programs, so it's fun to have some of that history and tradition around. It was nice to have them here because you know they're going to provide some very good competition."
Nudo cited several Friars for their performances at OPRF.
"[Wide receiver] Eian Pugh did very well," he said. "I thought our quarterback, Kaden Cobb, threw some great balls. Linebackers Bryce Legan and Danny Farnan did very well. In particular, I thought Marc Thomas at cornerback did a very nice job for us."
While OPRF continues to develop its young roster, the Huskies can take comfort in knowing that junior quarterback Jaden McGill looks poised to follow up on his strong sophomore debut last fall.
"It's like night and day," said Hoerster about McGill's development. "Last year, Jaden went into camp never having played quarterback before. He was really inexperienced, not only as a first-year varsity player, but as a first-year quarterback being asked to run the show. He did a fantastic job.
"Jaden has a year of experience under his belt this year," Hoerster said. "His fundamentals and his knowledge of the offense have improved. Physically, he's matured in his size and strength. Jaden is light-years ahead of where he was last year. That's saying a lot because he did some amazing things for us last year."
Last week's scrimmage marked the latest activity during a busy summer for both Oak Park teams. Fenwick traveled to St. Laurence for 7-on-7 events against the host Vikings, Thornwood and Marian Catholic; and also to Evanston for 7-on-7 sessions versus the host Wildkits, Leo and Stevenson.
"They really served a purpose of bringing the team together to compete against other people," Nudo said. "We were able to install what we're going to do during the season against teams you don't see every day — 7-on-7 is not a physical game by any means, but we're able to script what we do. We'll show enough, but not too much. We're just working on the things we practice during the week."
OPRF has been to Maine West for a workout with the host Warriors, Maine South, Fremd and Phillips. Maine West head coach Jason Kradman was the wide receivers coach during Hoerster's first season at OPRF in 2011. The Huskies also faced three West Suburban Conference Gold Division teams at Addison Trail against the host Blazers, Hinsdale South and Leyden.
"We saw some good things but also some things we need to improve," Hoerster said. "It's good to get the guys to compete against guys other than themselves. It's also good to see how guys respond in different situations, so you get something out of the 7-on-7 events. There are a lot of new faces we're working with, so getting them into a competitive situation is beneficial for everybody."
The Huskies and Friars hope the work they've put in this summer will pay off when the season starts.
"It's really exciting coming into a new year with a lot of new faces," Hoerster said. "I'm excited to find out what this group's personality is going to be all about. You have a new mentality, a new personality that emerges every season. Like every year, we have a challenging schedule with some really good teams that we're playing. It's going to be a fun year to see how this team comes together and find out what they're about."
If the Huskies develop their promising talent, an eighth consecutive trip to the state playoffs is possible. OPRF tied Glenbard West and Hinsdale Central as three-way West Suburban Conference Silver Division champs in 2018. Along with McGill, running back Nazareth Bryant, wide receiver Erik Skala, quarterback Toby Kunkel, offensive linemen Fabian Gonzalez and Luke Elwart, linebacker Daemyen Middlebrooks and defensive end Nahlee Bryant are notable returners from last year's 8-3 squad.
"These young guys are gonna have to mature quickly," Hoerster said. "It's going to be a trial by fire. If they can understand what we're asking from them offensively and defensively from a schematic perspective, this team is capable of having a lot of success."
Fenwick looks to bounce back from an uncharacteristically subpar 2018 season at 3-6. Like OPRF, The Friars will feature an infusion of younger players intent on returning the program to the postseason.
"We've got eight sophomores who are going to be playing for us," Nudo said. "We've got 56 guys on the varsity; that's a good number. I think they also get along well, which is huge when you're building a team. There's an awful lot of talent. The kids know we have a challenging schedule, but right now our focus is on Curie [Week 1 opponent]. We've got to be ready."
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