WOODSTOCK – As the final minute of Woodstock North’s practice Saturday approached, the Thunder were given a challenge.
Focusing on potential in-game scenarios has been an emphasis during practices and it was no different this day on the practice fields behind the football stadium. The situation: 4th and 1 for the final play of the day – offense against defense, one getting some bragging rights and a confidence boost to end practice.
The option attack, as many Woodstock North opponents discovered the past two seasons in particular, used a combination of speed and solid line play to easily gain the one yard on a nice run by senior running back Alex Mitchell to close practice.
“It pushes you,” senior offensive lineman Brett Caldwell said of game situation drills. “If we’re all really tired and they’re screaming 4th and 1, you want to give that best effort, you just want to push the ball if you’re on offense.”
Pushing the ball up the field has been a staple of the Woodstock North’s grind-it-out, big-play-potential option offense and it is a big reason why the Thunder are coming off two consecutive playoff berths with a second round appearance last year to finish 7-4.
To make its third straight playoff appearance in only its fifth season as a varsity program, Woodstock North will be relying on an offense that features five new starters on the line, including Caldwell who said the Thunder “may not be the biggest line, but we’re definitely going to be one of the fastest ones.”
Thunder coach Jeff Schroeder said he has been rejuvenated by this year’s team and its motivation and bond “has been the best of anyone I’ve ever coached.”
“I’ve been doing this for 18 years, the first three days [of practice] is the most fun I’ve had,” Schroeder said. “These kids are working hard and having a blast, bonding well as a team.”
Junior quarterback Jimmy Krenger understands the pressures that comes with being part of the second generation of Woodstock North’s football history. The first group, which graduated last year, were freshmen during the program’s first season and while the beginning was rough – the Thunder won a total of two games their first two years as a varsity team – they are 14-7 the past two seasons. Krenger and his teammates want to continue the successful tradition.
“It almost pushes us harder to fill those shoes and keep building on to that because they set a really high standard,” Krenger said.
With new starters littering Woodstock North’s lineup on both sides of the ball, the practices leading up to the Thunder’s season opener Aug. 30 at Wauconda represent an opportunity to build chemistry, work out kinks and prepare to play under the Friday night lights.
For Krenger, who is tasked with replacing three-year starter Brian Loftin, he is working to continue building a rapport with a somewhat inexperienced backfield led by senior fullback Grant Wade and Mitchell. Together, the backfield must replace 2,795 combined rushing yards from last year’s trio of Loftin, Ryan Wade and Adam Haimbaugh.
“Having a fast quarterback means everything goes faster and it’s harder for the defense to read and makes our plays better,” Wade said of this year’s unit.
While the offense garners a lot of attention, the Thunder won’t be successful without a defense that can make critical stops and big plays.
One of the biggest challenges for the new starters, especially Krenger since he is in charge of making the reads at the line of scrimmage, is adjusting to the speed of the game at the varsity level. The Thunder credited Schroeder for the job he’s done in elevating the program and helping them with the adjustments on varsity.
“If wasn’t for him, if we had a different coach, and he had a different offense in here, I do not think we’d be where we’re at right now at all,” Krenger said.
“[Schroeder] knows what buttons to push,” defensive back Jake Schnulle said. “He can find that extra fire in you and brings it out and makes you want to play harder.”
Ultimately, Woodstock North’s quest for its third consecutive playoff berth isn’t complicated.
“A lot of work and five wins,” Schroeder said with a smile.