HUNTLEY – Mike Naymola sat on a wooden table, making sure to keep the bags of miniature candy bars within reach.
The candy bars are a Monday team meeting staple. The distribution formula is simple. Crunch bars for big hits. PayDays for touchdowns, forced turnovers and touchdown-saving tackles. By now, the awards ceremony has become one of the the most anticipated parts of Huntley's football work week.
But as players settled in to begin preparing for defending Fox Valley Conference Valley Division champion and Class 6A runner-up Cary-Grove, they did so knowing the challenge they face is as big as any this fall.
Setting the right tone for the week was imperative.
“Last year, we aspired to be a championship team,” Red Raiders coach John Hart told his team. “This year, we expect to be a championship team. They are a championship team.”
The Trojans enter Friday's game 0-2 after losses to two state-ranked Class 6A teams: No. 6 Wheaton North and No. 2 Lake Zurich. Even with his team unbeaten after wins over Bartlett and most recently in a lopsided 48-16 victory over Elgin, Hart remained far from satisfied.
Too much went wrong against Elgin by Hart's estimation – especially defensively. Players were in the wrong gaps. They were undisciplined. They took improper angles, which led to too many big plays. If the mistakes continue against C-G, Hart warns, they will cost the Red Raiders a ballgame.
To make matters more difficult, Huntley’s defense must contend with a C-G option offense filled with wrinkles more traditional offenses don't include. So, like he often does, Hart turned to a boxing analogy. Hart contends there's something to the notion that football players, as in life, must learn to get punched in the mouth, get up and keep fighting.
But this week, Hart realized, wouldn't be like most scraps the Red Raiders will find themselves in this season.
“If you’ve ever been in a fistfight, they’ve got a left-handed offense and a left-handed defense,” Hart said. “It doesn’t make it great, but it makes it awkward.”
Hart continued with the boxing theme, describing the fighting style of former world heavyweight champion Ken Norton, whose ring strategies – like the scheme the Red Raiders face Friday night – was unconventional.
“Ken Norton was a really skilled fighter, but he was awkward,” Hart said. “So it made him kind of dangerous. And good. And that’s what they are. That’s a little bit of our challenge in front of us.”
• • •
Even with the tough week ahead, Hart made sure to stick to his normal Monday routine.
The awards, voted on during Sunday coaching staff meetings, are given to the offensive, defensive, special teams and scout team players of the week. As Hart read off the week’s recipients, Naymola started firing the candy bars around the room, mocked by heavy groans every time one of his throws missed its intended target.
"He's got the worst arm on the team," Hart joked.
The awards ceremony continued as Hart begian reviewing a series of film clips, highlighting the scoring plays and big hits from the win over Elgin.
“Dranka with the big hit,” Hart said as a clip of senior defensive end Brandon Dranka delivering a tackle is displayed on a large screen. “1-2-3.”
As soon as Hart stopped counting, players responded with three quick claps.
The highlight reel continued with a long Jake Scalise touchdown run and a downfield block by receiver Brandon Altergott.
“Altergott pancakes his man, 1-2-3,” Hart screamed. Clap, clap, clap.
The ceremony, like every other motivational tactic used by Hart, is by design. If the Red Raiders are going to be successful, Hart maintains, they have to enjoy the process. As hard as players will be pushed in the days leading up to Friday's game, Hart makes sure part of the week isn't as serious.
The Crunch Bars and PayDay idea came from Tennessee coach Butch Jones, who used the sugary treats as a reward during a team meeting Hart sat in on when Jones was at Cincinnati. Hart uses the awards as a way of allowing players to enjoy the fun parts of the game often lost in the pursuit of Friday night success.
“We coaches sometimes try to make it such a burden to play the game,” Hart said. “I guess I’ve always aspired to make it fun. When I think about work – if you enjoy what you’re doing – then it’s not work, it’s fun. So we celebrate the great plays kids make."
By meeting's end, more than two dozen candy bars had been delivered. Dranka collected a personal-best 10. Senior safety Mike Andrews was a close second, evidenced by the pile of empty candy wrappers in front of him. Like most of his teammates, Andrews considers the weekly awards ceremony incentive to give maximum effort, which in turn, inspires his teammates to follow his lead.
But as enjoyable as the weekly award ceremony is, Andrews admits he was ready to get to work. Last year, the C-G handled Huntley, 41-14. Andrews refers to the game as an embarrassment, and knew that the rest of the week had to be all business as preparations for the Trojans began in earnest.
“This is probably going to be our most serious week of football," he said.
• • •
The hard-nosed approach introduced Monday quickly carried over to Tuesday.
As much as Hart preaches not looking back, he understands the taste last year’s loss to the Trojans left. After Saturday's win over Elgin, Scalise said Hart made certain players weren't looking past the Maroons and onto C-G. But hours after the win, Scalise's backfield mate, Mitch Kawell, used his Twitter feed to convey a message all of his teammates had been feeling since the season began.
"I honestly can't wait to play Cary," Kawell tweeted. "I think this game will prove who we are and how much we put in to this season."
Still, despite their 2-0 record, Hart's players knew the effort against Elgin wasn't nearly good enough. On Monday, Hart had told his team that he believed the Red Raiders are a better team than the Trojans. But that proclamation came with a major disclaimer.
"They are a more disciplined team through two ballgames, and they seem to be a hungrier team through the first two ballgames," Hart said. "That’s the challenge in front of us – to match that."
By Tuesday, some of the cracks were still visible.
When running plays didn't come together for the first-team offense as it ran against Huntley's scout team defense, Scalise grew agitated.
"Let's go," Scalise screamed.
When players started to slow their pace on a day when the afternoon temperatures reached the mid-90s, Hart quickly made sure conditions didn't become an excuse.
"I can promise you right now, it's just as hot over at Cary-Grove," Hart barked. "Let's pick it up."
Its a theme – 212 Degrees: The Next Step – Hart introduced in the offseason to encourage his players not to be satisfied. Last season's effort in a 6-4 season is one Hart equates to hot water. But after two games – including a playoff-opening 10-9 loss to Fenwick – were decided by one point, Hart asked his team to ratchet up its play a level this year.
“If you turn (hot water) up one degree to 212 degrees, my physics degree tells me that’s boiling,” Hart said. “Boiling causes steam, and steam can move a locomotive. So that one degree goes from hot water, which is terrific, to boiling, which is a difference-maker.”
The theme was one defensive backs coach Casey Popenfoose built on in Monday's meeting with the defense. Even with last Saturday's 32-point victory, Hart described the defensive effort as a "huge disappointment." After noticing defensive players smiling during the film session at missed tackles, Hart chided them in the position meeting for being lazy – something he says that can't be repeated Friday against the Trojans.
So before he started mapping out the defensive game plan for C-G, Popenfoose made sure players understood what was at stake. He urged them to put last year behind them and to embrace the present.
"This is a new football team, it’s a new mentality," Popenfoose told players. "We’re taking the next step this Friday night. I think about everything we’ve worked toward in the offseason, every game is important – I’m not going to lie to you there. But when I see Cary-Grove on the schedule and it’s the first time we’re out there on a Friday night with the lights on us and it’s going to be packed, I think of now. I think of this week.
"The next step is here. Be excited, get prepared and let’s dominate it."
About this series: Huntley football coach John Hart has given the Northwest Herald and sports reporter Jeff Arnold all access to his program for the 2013 season. From coaches meetings and film sessions to the pregame locker room, Arnold will write weekly stories from inside the Red Raiders program, providing a glimpse into the lives of high school football players.