HUNTLEY – The Huntley football program made giant strides last year, upsetting Stevenson in the first round of the Class 8A playoffs and defeating Fremd in the second round before Loyola – the eventual state runner-up – ended the Red Raiders' season in the quarterfinals.
Two seasons ago, Huntley was one and done. In 2015, an undefeated Raiders team marched into the playoffs and beat Minooka by six touchdowns in their first-round matchup, only to lose the next week to Oswego by a field goal.
"We weren’t a playoff team," said second-year Huntley coach Matt Zimolzak, who served as the team's defensive coordinator from 2013 to 2015. "We were just a team that got into the playoffs.
"Now, Huntley is not a team that everyone wants to schedule for homecoming. We’re kind of up and coming, and I don’t think we’ve reached our full potential yet."
This year's team is hoping to build off the success of last year's quarterfinal run, in which the Raiders overcame a 3-3 start and won five of their last six games to reach the final eight.
With summer practices underway, expectations for the Raiders again are sky high.
"A lot of these guys, a lot of juniors, were on the team last year," said 6-foot-1 senior quarterback Eric Mooney, who has multiple FCS scholarship offers. "We all know what it’s going to take and what the level of play is (at Class 8A). We’re all going to work our butts off to get past that quarterfinal, make it a few rounds more and hopefully make a state championship run. We're ready for it."
Mooney, who has picked up nine FCS offers since March, threw for 1,901 yards and completed 62.8 percent of his passes as a junior, along with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. He was hard to catch on the ground, too, rushing for 1,277 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Zimolzak said Mooney has improved his arm strength and accuracy and will be even better in 2017. Last season was Mooney's first as quarterback after playing wide receiver and running back.
Colleges are looking at him at all three positions, in addition to defensive back.
"Throwing the ball early, making the right reads and making the right calls are all things I want to improve," Mooney said. "But, mostly, being a team leader. I want to lead these guys. People got better, people got stronger, and we’re working way harder this year. We’re excited; coaches are excited, too."
Although the Raiders are hopeful for an even longer playoff run, they aren't getting ahead of themselves. Huntley opens against Jacobs on Aug. 25, and then plays Prairie Ridge, the defending Class 6A state champion, the following week.
Huntley finished 8-4 last season and 6-2 in the Fox Valley Conference.
"Our offense is going to be a lot stronger than what people expect," said senior wide receiver Ryan Antonsen, who also plays linebacker. "We got a lot of experience from the playoffs, so that's going to help us this season."
"Teams like Prairie Ridge and [Cary-Grove] are very good competition. Prairie Ridge won state, and they're going to be tough again. That's going to help us get better throughout the season."
Zimolzak said the skill positions look especially strong, led by Mooney at quarterback.
At receiver, the Raiders are deep with Antonsen, Matt Gelander, Ron Noll, Michael Boland and Brian O'Mara all capable of stretching defenses.
"We have guys that might not start for us that would be a premiere receiver on any other team," Zimolzak said. "Coach (Mike) Naymola does a great job with those guys. They're ready to go."
In the spring, Noll – along with Mooney and running back Melvin Aninagyei-Bonsu – were on the Raiders' 4x100-meter relay team that had the fastest time in the state for most of the season. Aninagyei-Bonsu and Sebastian Calabrese are getting the most looks at running back, Zimolzak said.
Justin Allen (6-1, 200) and Alex Pitrone (6-4, 295) will be standouts on the defensive line, and returning starter Joe Wilson will anchor the offensive line. Wilson (6-2, 260) is the only returning starter on that side of the line, but the Raiders still get back 11 total starters from last year's quarterfinalist.
Senior defensive back Tyler Coss, a Northwest Herald All-Area honorable mention as a junior, brings back experience in the secondary.
"With so many returning guys, they know what the expectation is," Allen said. "We all know how hard we have to push each other to be better. Everyone's gotten a lot better from last year, and we're working to be even better."
Zimolzak said he has seen a lot of enthusiasm from players and coaches so far.
"Every day, the kids come out and are ready to go," Zimolzak said. "They know that we had a chance last year. They just know it’s going to take a little bit more, and they’re working a lot harder. We’re definitely stronger than last year ... but as far as our football intelligence, we’re further along than last year, too. That’s a good sign."