HUNTLEY – Tina Driscoll stood on the rubberized running track in front of her fellow Friday night fanatics and scanned an unbroken sea of red, white and blue.
The fact that the south end of the home bleachers was filled for Huntley’s Fox Valley Conference opener against Cary-Grove was a sign that Driscoll – the resident leader of Raider Nation – had done her job.
Not only had students shown up, but they had come in all of their patriotic glory. There was the guy with the Superman costume – cape and all. There was the guy who painted his chest with stars and stripes and the girls whose red-beaded necklaces and festive hats completed their American flag-themed outfits.
Students came bearing various noise-makers and Vuvuzelas – the long plastic horns used at World Cup soccer matches. They came prepared with a full repertoire of cheers – including the Huntley Hoedown and Raider Roller Coaster – both standards at Red Raiders sporting events.
At times, the noise level rose to the point where offensive players on the field struggled to hear the play call at the line of scrimmage. But Huntley players won't complain about the enthusiasm that surrounds their program.
Like on the field, there is a new culture at the school on Friday nights. And Driscoll is cast perfectly as the poster girl.
Three years ago, Driscoll didn’t attend a single varsity football game. By the time she was a sophomore, she regretted not being more involved. Now a senior, Driscoll had the group’s leadership duties handed down to her by last year’s leadership group, charged with keeping Raider Nation's momentum rolling. It hasn't been difficult.
"There’s definitely a huge change in the support (for the football team) and in the way we play,” Driscoll said. “The way we look at football is completely different.”
Junior Brendan Boesch remembers a time not that long ago when football wasn’t a big deal. There was never an organized effort to support the Red Raiders. If students showed up, they weren’t overly excited about being there and weren't engaged with what was happening on the field.
But that all changed when second-year coach John Hart was hired, changing the way the program approached the game and bringing a new level of enticement for students.
“We have a fun time now,” Boesch said.
Driscoll, along with Huntley senior tight end Korbyn Kozelka, keeps Raider Nation running at full tilt. Driscoll and Kozelka come up with themes for each week, spending weekends promoting the next week’s dress code on Raider Nation’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram feeds in addition to making daily morning announcements at school.
Kozelka and Driscoll use ideas they’ve seen at other schools along ones that Driscoll know will be easy for students to put together without much cost. On average, 100 students show up for Huntley home games, feeling like they’re playing their part in Red Raider football.
“I think (dressing up) shows how much school spirit a person has because for them to go out of their way and wear (themed clothes) shows the team that we’re here, we’re ready to go, we’re pumped up for you,” Driscoll said. “It shows that (students) care enough to wear these things and that we want them to win.”
Raider Nation was in full force for Huntley’s back-to-back home showdowns with Cary-Grove and Crystal Lake Central. Both games came down to the final seconds, but both resulted in losses that left students in the stands as speechless as the players on the field. Now, with Huntley in the midst of a three-game losing streak, the leaders of Raider Nation don’t expect a drop-off in participation.
Kozelka senses a bond between football players and students that may not exist at other schools. As a varsity player, Kozelka said he and his teammates know they have the support of the young fans who cram into the left corner of the stands and who will participate in an organized Black Out for Huntley's homecoming game Friday with Prairie Ridge.
"We definitely hear them when we're out there," Kozelka said. "I think the stereotype in the past was that there was a gap (between students and players), but I want the school to be unified. We all wear Huntley."
That carries over to students, who believe that following the various themes each week shows football players that they are committed to backing the Red Raiders. And while students sometimes can be self-conscious at first about how they look, Boesch said that insecurity quickly fades.
“You look goofy if you don’t dress up and you’re awesome if you do,” Boesch said. “People are like, why wouldn’t you want to dress up – it’s the fun thing to do. You feel like you’re part of the team. You’re in the middle of all these people, you’re all dressed up and you’re just having a good time. You feel like you’re on the field almost."
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 inside the Red Raiders program, providing a glimpse into the lives of high school football players.