HUNTLEY – As his teammates slowly made their way from the field to the locker room last Friday night, Jordan Kabb lingered behind.
Kabb meandered almost aimlessly, stunned by what had happened minutes before. For much of Huntley's Fox Valley Conference crossover game with Crystal Lake Central, Kabb's mind kept flashing back to the year before, when the Red Raiders lost to the Tigers on the final play.
The senior linebacker looked across the field, watching the Tigers celebrate another dramatic victory – this one decided with 13.6 seconds remaining. For the second straight week, the Red Raiders, who began the year with so much potential, had been beaten on their home field on almost an identical pass play in the game's waning moments.
Now two plays from being unbeaten, the reality of Huntley's 2-2 record was almost too much for Kabb to bear.
"To me, this is way more than just a game," Kabb said Monday, after allowing a 34-27 loss to stew for a few days. "I wanted that victory 10 more times than that (Central) team – especially after last year. Obviously, I was pretty upset."
Following the game, Kabb walked into the locker room without saying a word to any of his teammates. He took his helmet and shoulder pads off, jumped into his car and drove home. When his parents asked how the game was, Kabb – almost without stopping –responded by saying, "You can look at the scoreboard – that's the game."
With that, he went to his room and closed the door.
A few miles away, Huntley running backs Mitch Kawell and Jake Scalise, along with wide receiver Kyle Kesul and tight end Korbyn Kozelka stood in defensive end Brandon Dranka's front yard. Like Kabb, the five teammates were still in shock of how victory had seemingly slipped through their grasp in the final seconds.
Immediately after the game, Kawell, like many of his teammates, took to his Twitter account to express disappointment.
Kabb wrote: Still can't believe we lost that game.
From quarterback Blake Jacobs: This one hurts.
But for Kawell, the loss was more motivating than exasperating: Sorry Raider Nation. We'll step it up for you.
"It's hard...because you're that close," Kawell said Monday. "But we still have a lot to look forward to. There's no reason we should get down on ourselves or anything."
The five teammates stood in Dranka's yard for what seemed like hours, disappointed but determined to not allow two straight losses to define their season. With five regular season games remaining, they realized that the playoffs and beyond were still in play, but that they needed to find ways to close out close games rather than come up short like they had against Central and a week earlier against Cary-Grove.
The discussion continued late, reliving moments from the past two games that impacted the outcomes. A questionable facemask call against Kabb with 19 seconds remaining had left everyone fuming– Huntley coach John Hart included. But one call, the five teammates realized, hadn't been the lone culprit in the loss. That, they decided, is what needed fixing.
"Little things end up being the difference in the game," Kawell said.
Unable to sleep, Kabb logged onto his Hudl account and started reviewing game video. Kabb focused on his performance, determined to learn something. Even though he felt like he had given his all, Kabb realized there were a few plays he had taken off – moments when he felt like he let his teammates down.
On Saturday, Kabb saw many of his teammates around town. While most of them had moved on emotionally, Kabb remained in a bit of a daze, still unsure how the Red Raiders had lost the night before.
By Monday's team meeting, Hart and his staff had started planning for Friday night's road game at Dundee-Crown.
Hart sensed his players were at a crossroads and that the situation required an honest assessment. As he scanned the large classroom where his players sat in desks, Hart saw a variety of emotions. Many of the seniors were still stern-faced, angry over how the past two games had played out. But some of the underclassmen weren't nearly as bothered, evidenced by the way they joked around before the meeting began.
After writing the team's schedule on a dry-erase board, Hart wrote one more message next to the weekly timetable: Define average.
Hart told his players that being average wasn't necessarily a bad thing. But whether the Red Raiders would be be average or would rise above mediocrity – Hart told his players – was a choice only they could make. For Hart, a former high school defensive lineman, being hold repeatedly growing up that he would be "below average" and likely wouldn't amount to anything was something that always bothered him, pushing him to never accept failure.
Now, after two straight losses, Hart told his players they had to chart their course. Unscripted, Hart spoke for nearly 12 minutes straight, the intensity in his voice rising throughout the speech.
"If someone tells you you're average, it's not an insult, but you have to decide if that's what you're willing to accept," Hart said. "To be honest, that's what we are. Right now, we're average."
Hart told his players the week ahead wouldn't be easy. There would be some personnel changes. The film session that followed Monday's meeting, Hart promised, wouldn't be enjoyable, having instructed coaches that they needed to demonstrate some tough love to get their point across.
Players effort would be called into question, Hart said. If it didn't improve, there was no way the Red Raiders would ever rise above being average, falling well below the expectations that had been laid out when the season began.
"This isn't an insult on your character, it's on your drive," Hart continued. "And if you think one play beat us (against Central)....you're screwed up. You don't understand."
As Hart spoke, his players' eyes remained locked to the front of the room. Kabb scowled. Leaning forward in his chair, Dranka stared straight ahead.
Kawell's determined facial expression remained unchanged throughout the meeting. Looking around the room, Hart said the days leading up the D-C game would show how his players chose to define "average", which in turn would determine how the rest of the season goes. No one in the room was spared.
"I hope it (ticks) you off," Hart said. "I hope it (ticks) a whole bunch of you off because right now, we need to play with a little venom....It's gut-check time. Either you find out you love football or else this is going to be a really tough week."
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 to 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.