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 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.
HUNTLEY – Mike Andrews sat alone off to the side of a long hallway at the end of another exhausting Friday night, unwrapping tape from around his ankle.
From his vantage point, the senior defensive back watched as his Huntley teammates walked quietly toward the locker room. Most walked with their heads down, trying to digest a loss to rival Jacobs during which the Red Raiders couldn’t overcome a sluggish start, three turnovers and a 20-point halftime deficit.
It had been roughly three hours since Huntley coach John Hart had reminded his players that, if they wanted to keep moving closer to earning a playoff berth, they couldn’t afford to allow the distractions of senior night to affect the way they played.
Before Andrews and teammates Jordan Kabb and Brandon Dranka led the team out of the aluminum-sided storage shed where the Red Raiders meet before kickoff, offensive coordinator Mike Slattery walked up and fist-bumped each player.
“Full 48 minutes,” Slattery said in a soft voice just north of a whisper. “Start to finish. Full 48 minutes.”
Each nodded in agreement. But somewhere between the pregame parade of players ushering their parents across the sideline and kickoff, Hart’s message evaporated.
In the first 24 minutes, Huntley’s offense generated 72 yards. In their final two drives of the first half, the Red Raiders stalled inside the Jacobs 20-yard line, unable to put a dent in a nearly three-touchdown deficit.
In the second half, the Red Raiders outscored the Golden Eagles 20-7. But the slow start, along with two lost fumbles and an interception – all in the final two quarters – doomed any chance of Huntley winning its fifth game. As Jacobs’ players celebrated clinching at least a share of the Golden Eagles' first league title since 1979, Red Raiders receiver Brandon Altergott struggled to put his thoughts together.
“I just don’t think we were in it at the beginning of the game – we just weren’t in it,” Altergott said quietly. “I don’t even know what [happened]. I’m speechless.”
This much was clear: A loss Friday in the regular-season finale at Crystal Lake South would bring the year to a disappointing end. A win would make the Red Raiders playoff eligible, making them only the second Huntley team in school history to finish with a winning record in back-to-back seasons.
Yet, despite still being able to leave a legacy, the Jacobs loss – especially for Huntley's seniors who had played their final home game – would take a while to sink in.
“We really did not take advantage of starting fast – at all,” Andrews said, occasionally looking up from his tape job. “Whenever we have to deal with things like at Elgin, when we started out slow when there was a huge delay, this game when it was our senior night and things weren’t like they normally are. ..."
His voice trailed off before picking up again.
"Coach Hart always says change isn’t good for an athlete.”
• • •
Four days earlier, Hart expressed concern over the senior night and breast cancer awareness festivities.
High school coaches hate to have their routine interrupted. On Monday, Hart told his players to be courteous to their parents, understanding how much the occasion meant to them. He had asked that players limit wearing only pink socks and wristbands, eliminating the risk of having something as small as their uniform take away from the business at hand.
On Friday night, in the moments before players knelt on one knee as they recited the Lord’s Prayer in unison while touching the shoulder of the teammate in front of them, Hart had been clear in making sure focus wasn’t lost.
Although Hart believed he and his coaching staff had prepared the Red Raiders to deal with Jacobs' wealth of offensive weapons, Hart understood his team couldn't afford to make life easier for its opponent, which had won five straight games.
“Starting out fast is tremendously important,” Hart told his players. “As much as recognizing cancer victims, as much as doing senior night with your parents, as much as that’s incredibly important – maybe bigger than football – when we get on the field, football is all that matters.
“For those 48 minutes, it’s all that matters.”
• • •
Putting together 48 minutes of continuous football had been one of Huntley’s biggest problems for much of the year.
Early in the season, the Red Raiders failed to finish drives, often leaving points on the field. It hadn’t mattered in wins over Bartlett and Elgin, but once the Fox Valley Conference season started, Huntley had found ways to beat itself.
But in wins over Prairie Ridge and McHenry, Hart started to see long stretches of the kind of football he believed his team was capable of playing. Now, seemingly with some momentum built up, he believed the Red Raiders were in prime position to keep surging ahead against Jacobs.
The next step was getting his players to believe.
“We’ve got to find the focus that we’ve almost had the last two games," Hart continued. "There’s another level for you guys. We just have to line up and play the best football we’ve got. I know I keep preaching that, but that’s how close we are to being a great team. We just have to play our best football every play.”
Instead, flashes of Huntley’s struggles returned at a time of the season when the Red Raiders could least afford it. Despite the defense limiting Jacobs to only seven second-half points, the offense – which had struggled to find rhythm during a three-game losing streak – couldn’t sustain what it had done the previous two weeks.
Andrews maintained his teammates would find a way to straighten things out against South, with the Red Raiders' playoff hopes at stake. Altergott agreed, saying that a week's worth of hard practices would put things back on track. Hart had pulled quarterback Blake Jacobs aside and told him to brush off the mistakes that stained what was otherwise a memorable individual performance in which he threw for more than 300 yards and two touchdowns.
But if his team had any chances to playing beyond the regular season, they had to find a way to start better. But as they had done all season, Hart said, his kids wouldn't stop fighting. Not now. Not with so much to play for.
"I don't mind failures, I don't mind mistakes – you don't want to make the same ones over and over again – but I love the fight," Hart said. "And there were a lot of [players] out there fighting."