More than a year after his college football playing career ended, Joey O’Brien still feels pangs of anticipation on Saturdays in the fall.
“I definitely still get the butterflies,” said O’Brien, who will begin his second year as a graduate assistant coach at NCAA Division III Lakeland College this month. “One thing I’m known for is always pacing back and forth. I’m not really going anywhere. I’m just pacing. I still get very amped up and excited.”
O’Brien, a two-time team captain at the Sheboygan, Wis., school, has plenty to be excited about. The Cary-Grove graduate is in the infancy of coaching a sport that is his unquestionable passion.
O’Brien started 22 career games for the Muskies at strong safety, compiling 90 tackles over his last two seasons. When his playing career ended, O’Brien’s coaching path was obvious.
“I’ve loved every bit of it,” O’Brien said. “I was lucky to have played for Lakeland and to have stayed with the program as a coach.”
O’Brien, who coaches defensive backs, earned a psychology degree as a Lakeland undergraduate, and is working toward a master’s degree in counseling. Whether he’s working as a counselor or teacher, one thing is certain about his future, he said.
“As long as football is a part of my life, I’ll be a happy man,” O’Brien said.
The interest in coaching began early in his football career, O’Brien said, starting with the guidance he got as part of the Cary Junior Trojans youth program, then with C-G head coach Bruce Kay and his coaching staff and Lakeland head coach Kevin Doherty and his assistants.
“I can’t tell you that I’ve ever had a bad coach,” O’Brien said.
Being a team captain helped O’Brien transition into coaching his former peers.
“I felt that I already had that respect from them as a player,” he said. “I just had to remind them that now my role was as a coach. I not only want to help these guys in football, I also want to help them in school and in their lives.”
While coaching the same 3-3-5 defensive scheme he played in at C-G and Lakeland, O’Brien said he can teach X’s and O’s along with helping players work through disappointments.
In his first practice as a freshman at Lakeland, O’Brien suffered a torn knee ligament. After a redshirt season, he collected 10 total tackles over the next two seasons.
“It’s tough going from being on top of the campus (in high school) and being in the newspaper to being a third- or fourth-stringer,” O’Brien said. “Even in high school, it’s a four-year program. It takes time to learn. I do talk to my guys about that.”
Lakeland, which finished 4-6 last season after losing its first three games, opens the season Sept. 1 at home against Carroll University. Lakeland’s coaches will welcome a roster with limited experience Aug. 12 for the first day of fall camp. O’Brien said the team will include 35 sophomores and 45 freshmen, which hasn’t dampened his energy level.
“We’re a very young team, but I’m excited about this team,” he said.
Neukirch recognized: Illinois State junior fullback and Huntley grad Jordan Neukirch has been named to The Sports Network’s Football Championship Subdivision Preseason All-America third team.
Neukirch, a second-team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference choice last season, served as the team’s primary blocking back last season. Neukirch’s blocking helped running back Ashton Leggett rush for 1,031 yards and 11 touchdowns last season to become ISU’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006.
On Thursday, he was one of 27 Missouri Valley players named to the preseason all-conference team.
The Redbirds, who open the season Sept. 1 in Normal against Dayton, were ranked 18th this week in the College Sporting News preseason poll.
MCC summer stars: Jacobs grad Matt Schmidt, who will be a sophomore this fall at McHenry County College, led the Metropolitan College Summer Baseball League of Illinois this summer with a .368 batting average.
Schmidt, a first baseman/pitcher for the Elgin Aces, made the league’s all-star game and also went 1-0 with a 2.57 ERA on the mound.
Cary-Grove grad Nick Richter and Jacobs grad Joe Ross, who played for the Rockford Foresters this summer, both made the Midwest Collegiate League’s all-star game. Richter batted .324 with 22 RBIs this season, while Ross (1-4) started a team-high six games for the Foresters and had 18 strikeouts in 261⁄3 innings. Both will be sophomores at MCC this fall.
MCC baseball coach Jared Wacker was named Illinois Skyway Collegiate Conference Newcomer Coach of the Year for all sports.
• Barry Bottino writes a weekly column and a blog about local college athletes for the Northwest Herald. Write to him at BarryOnCampus@hotmail.com and check out his On Campus blog at McHenry