After three consecutive postseason defeats, the Hinsdale Central football family is anxious to escape the first round of the IHSA 8A state playoffs. But first, the Red Devils will have to navigate an arduous schedule that includes contests with projected state No. 1 Bolingbrook, Glenbard West and Oak Park-River Forest. New head coach Dan Hartman said the Red Devils will be retooling their offense in 2014, but will that be sufficient to emerge from the perils of one of the state’s premier conferences, and advance in the postseason?
By Mike Ellis
When the Red Devils stepped off the field last year in Oswego after suffering a 42-14 loss in the first round of the IHSA 8A playoffs, it marked a low point for a program with a proud football tradition. Yes, starting quarterback Chase Hamilton was just returning from an injury that precluded him from playing most of the season. But what shone through the entire contest was, Hinsdale Central appeared to have more talent on the field, but Oswego functioned better as a team, making fewer mistakes, and executing its offense in a more timely and efficient manner.
Hartman is a young coach, but has already attained success in his brief head coaching career. He spent the past three years at Evergreen Park H.S., where his team improved its regular season record each season. Each of Hartman’s three years, Evergreen Park qualified for the 4A state playoffs, and his team reached the semifinals in 2012. Before coaching at Evergreen Park, he began his career with Crown Point H.S. in Crown Point, Ind., where he served as defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator.
Hartman, who will also teach U.S. and world history at Hinsdale Central this fall, said he understands the Red Devil tradition, and would like to make similar progress with Hinsdale as he did with Evergreen Park.
“It’s obviously a rich tradition in the past, making a state finals appearance a couple years ago,” he said. “[Hinsdale] plays in one of the best conferences in the State of Illinois. Football is really important to the community and to the kids, so that’s definitely the type of place you want to be.”
Offense, Defense & Special Teams
“It seems like this senior group is a deep group,” Hartman said. “They’ve been playing together since back in their youth football days, and they’ve had a lot of success over the years...There’s a lot of experience returning, and it looks like a pretty good core group of kids.”
Hartman said while on the defensive side, things will remain relatively unchanged under Tom Dorrance and Brian Griffin, there will be significant changes to the offense.
“We’ll be running more of the spread offensive scheme, so that will be a change, I’m sure, for some of the kids,” he said.
The spread offense is predicated on precision and speed, and has become quite popular at the collegiate and high-school levels after elite college programs like the University of Oregon have employed it to shatter offensive records.
Hinsdale junior running back Juwan Edmond said he is confident he will fit well within the spread offense.
“I think our offense fits me very well,” Edmond said. “The fast pace we go at will catch defenses off guard, and with the defenses off guard, that’ll open up some big plays for us.”
At quarterback, senior Thomas Ives is the projected starter. Ives stepped in at quarterback several games last season while Hamilton was hampered with an injury, which Hartman said will benefit him this year.
“Thomas is a great athlete; that makes things a lot easier for him,” Hartman said. “Obviously, filling in for Chase last year when he went down made him feel a little bit more comfortable in the role than some of the other guys that we’re looking at [for] that spot.”
Ives said he is intrigued by the spread offense.
“The spread offense is great,” he said. “It gives the great athletes we have space to make plays.”
At the skill positions, the Red Devils are returning several pieces that factored into the offense in 2013. While the loss of Ian Bunting, who will be playing at the University of Michigan this fall, is a significant one at wide receiver, Hartman said his team has “quite a few good, young skill-position players.”
The aforementioned Juwan Edmond will bring explosive speed to the running back position, replacing outgoing senior Ben Stefani, while senior Ryan Doney and junior Brad Huth will be called upon to make plays as receivers.
Hinsdale will also have to fill considerable voids on the offensive and defensive lines with Michigan State-bound Brian Allen having graduated. Hartman said while the Red Devils cannot replace Allen, he does like that most of his offensive linemen have some playing experience at the varsity level.
“Brian is obviously a huge loss,” he said. “You can’t really replace guys like that; they only come around every few years. But four out of our five offensive linemen got reps last year on the varsity team, so that’s [going to] help.”
Hartman said the defensive line, however, appears to be a more “unproven group, but it looks like they’ve got some guys that can definitely get the job done.”
Meanwhile, at linebacker, despite the loss of Jacob White, the Red Devils are returning a strong crop of talent that includes junior Matt Bradley and seniors Grant Pitcher and Jimmy Thompson, all of which gained playing experience last year.
“That’s three pretty strong linebackers coming back,” Hartman said.
Bradley said the experience he acquired as a sophomore will be beneficial this year, as he strives to improve as a junior in 2014.
“I had the experience of facing great players every day in practice,” he said. “I was surprised how big, fast and [dominant] they were on the field. I must have gotten ‘pancaked’ the first ten times I went against [Max] Hartzman.”
Bradley said there are six linebackers currently competing for spots, and this deep linebacking core will be crucial to the defense’s success.
“The defensive philosophy is built around the linebackers, as the defensive line’s first priority is to engage the linemen and not allow them to work up to the linebackers, subsequently freeing us to make the plays,” he said. “It will be vital to have a strong backing core in order to accomplish what we desire.”
In the secondary, senior safety Mark Dykstra will be back in the lineup, joining a new crop of talent that Hartman said “[has] been doing a really good job of competing in practice so far.”
No matter how strong the offense and defense, as the Bears showed several years ago, no team is complete without an adept special teams unit. Senior Blake Hately will be returning to perform the kicking duties. Hately showed promise throughout the 2013 season, and Hartman said he was impressed with how he finished the year. Hartman said Ives will be following in Hamilton’s footsteps, performing both the quarterbacking and punting duties.
As if playing in one of the toughest conferences in the state weren’t enough, Hinsdale’s 2014 schedule is made still more difficult with its season opener at Bolingbrook, one of the top teams in the state. The Raiders defeated the Red Devils, 17-6, at Dickinson Field in last season’s opening game, and Hartman said he expects them to enter 2014 ranked No. 1 in the state with “ten to 11” Division I prospects.
“On the road, in their place, I think we’ll find out really [quickly] how we match up, and what our kids are made of,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it; I think it’s a great test early on, and I think we’ll find out a lot.”
One interesting aspect of the Red Devils’ schedule is that they will host every team they faced on the road last season, and vice versa. From Bolingbrook, Hinsdale will venture northward to square off with Addison Trail on Sept. 5. Hartman said while he is really looking forward to the daunting challenge Bolingbrook will present in the opening game, he believes Addison Trail’s offense will pose a test to his defense.
“I think they’re definitely a team to look out for on the other side of the conference,” he said.
After two conference contests against York (home) and Proviso West (away), Hinsdale will host perennial power and defending conference champion Glenbard West on Sept. 26 at 7:30 p.m. Glenbard West has become not only the premier team in the West Suburban Silver division, but also one of the premier schools in the State of Illinois. After winning the state title in 2012, the Hilltoppers reached the semifinals of the 7A playoffs last season before falling to Lake Zurich, 16-7. Over the past several years, they have had the Red Devils’ (and essentially every other West Suburban Silver team’s) number. But last time Glenbard visited Dickinson Field in 2012, the Red Devils nearly pulled a stunning upset, falling 28-23.
Juwan Edmond said he believes it’s time for a change atop the West Suburban Silver.
“Their conference championship reign needs to end,” Edmond said.
The next Friday night, the Red Devils will visit Lyons Township in an eagerly anticipated rematch of last year’s Homecoming debacle. Few Red Devil fans have forgotten last year’s Homecoming game at Dickinson Field, when the LT student section stunned Hinsdale fans by biking from La Grange to Hinsdale in the “Tour de LT.” This was followed by the perhaps still-bigger surprise of the Red Devils surrendering 35 points to their archrivals on their home field in the first half. The Lions won the game going away, 35-14.
“I want to play against LT, because they are our rivals, and they also embarrassed us on our Homecoming,” Edmond said. “So, I would love to return the favor.”
Thomas Ives said this is also the game he is most looking forward to.
“Every game this year is important, but personally I am looking forward to the LT game,” he said, “due to the reborn intensity between the two schools.”
Homecoming is a bit later this year (Oct. 11), and Hinsdale will host District 86 rival Hinsdale South for The Doings Cup. Then, the Red Devils wrap up the season by hosting always-dangerous Oak Park-River Forest, which has defeated Hinsdale three times in the last two seasons, on Senior Night, and Downers Grove North for the Old Oaken Bucket on Oct. 24.
How to finish strong
While the 2014 schedule presents a plethora of obstacles, if the Red Devils qualify for postseason play this fall, everyone involved with the program, from players and coaches to parents and fans, is hoping to see Hinsdale clear its obstinate first-round playoff hurdle. The past three seasons, the Red Devils reached the 8A playoffs, and on all three occasions, they were promptly dismissed in the first round. Defeats ranged from an understandable loss to Catholic powerhouse Mt. Carmel in 2011, to a heartbreaking defeat to Oak Park-River Forest at home in 2012, to a disappointing four-touchdown loss at Oswego last fall.
Former head coach Rich Tarka was at the helm all three of those seasons, finishing his Hinsdale coaching career with an 0-3 playoff record, despite a respectable 18-12 record overall. Hartman said he understands the expectations of advancing in the playoffs, and believes his experience in compiling a 6-3 record in the 4A playoffs with Evergreen Park will serve as an advantage for him.
“Any time you can coach in the playoffs and get some wins, experience-wise, it helps,” he said. “[Hinsdale has] had a lot of success in the past; it’s just been a few years.
“That’s definitely the plan: if we’re going to make the playoffs, we definitely want to win some games.”
Ives said he believes the schedule will help ready the Red Devils for postseason play.
“We have worked hard all offseason, and will continue to improve in every facet throughout the season,” he said. “This, along with our strong regular season schedule, will prepare us well for the postseason.”
Edmond said the team’s goal is to not just win one playoff game, but parlay its successes into six.
“Our main goal as a team is to obviously win state,” he said. “That’s the main thing being talked about, but we just need to take it week by week and get better after each game.”
Hinsdale Central Football opens its season at Bolingbrook on Aug. 29 at 7 p.m. The Red Devils will host York in their home opener on Sept. 12 at Dickinson Field at 7:30 p.m.