Written by Jason Maholy
Richards quarterback Hasan Muhammad-Rogers fires a pass during the Bulldogs’ 7-on-7 passing tournament held last Saturday in Oak Lawn. The junior signal-caller started nine games as a sophomore, and put in a heavy workload during the offseason to improve his game. Photo by Jason Maholy
Local teams gather for 7-on-7 event at Richards
Richards was a football team on a roll when it entered last season’s Class 6A second-round playoff clash against Lemont.
The Bulldogs had won eight straight games and boasted a defense that had registered four shutouts and was allowing an average of just 7.2 points per game through 10 contests. An offense that had been inconsistent for much of the regular season put up 36 points in a first-round playoff rout of Lincoln-Way North, and one quarter into Round 2 versus the Indians it had tallied two touchdowns of more than 45 yards.
Things were looking great for a squad led largely by juniors and that, while talented, was not expected to be in the hunt for an extended playoff run for perhaps another year.
That roll, however, came to a halt when the wheels fell off the proverbial wagon in the form of six turnovers and missed opportunities, sending the Bulldogs to a 23-19 defeat.
Then-sophomore quarterback Hasan Muhammad-Rogers had been a key factor in Richards’ success throughout the year and the quick start against Lemont, but he played the role of goat after throwing three interceptions and fumbling three times in that season-ending loss. The dual-threat signal-caller was inconsolable as he sat on the bench during the waning seconds of that game, wracked with guilt and believing he had let his team down.
“It hurt,” Muhammad-Rogers recalled of the defeat as he spoke last Saturday after a 7-on-7 event hosted by Richards.
Falling short of one’s goals can inspire an even greater hunger, and Muhammad-Rogers has used last November’s crushing loss as motivation to take his team to the ultimate goal of a state championship.
“I’m doing my best to work hard,” Muhammad-Rogers said. “When I’m working [out] at night, I’m thinking I should be the only one up right now working, doing stuff. I’m going the extra step [and] looking to achieve more ’cause last year we fell short.
“We have big expectations this year with me coming back and knowing more than I knew last year and being more of a leader.”
Muhammad-Rogers, who did not start at quarterback on the varsity until Week 3 of last season, is more comfortable with the offense heading into the 2013 campaign. The junior signal-caller feels the game coming to him more easily and has taken it upon himself to be among the Bulldogs’ leaders.
His progress has been such that the Richards staff, led by head coach Tony Sheehan, has given Muhammad-Rogers the freedom to call his own plays based on what he sees from opposing defenses at the line of scrimmage.
“Now, it just feels like I’m more in control,” he said. “I’m getting to the line, I’m reading, I’m getting a pre-snap read. [Coaches] are trusting me to make better decisions.
“Last year, I was just going by the book, and now I can say, ‘All right, well, they’ve got this covered, they’re in Cover 3, so I’ll make them pick one [receiver] and go to the other one.’”
As the 25-session summer practice season picks up, Muhammad-Rogers feels the offense’s chemistry — particularly between himself and his receivers — improving.
“We’re getting better,” he said. “The first day, we were missing some beats, too many steps, [being] a little too late. But now we’re getting better with more reps and we’re starting to get crisp now.”
Sheehan has also been pleased with what he has seen from his squad thus far, though he acknowledged the Bulldogs have improvement to make if they are to build on last year’s success. The 7-on-7 event at Richards pitted the Bulldogs against some of the state’s top teams, including Class 8A champion Mt. Carmel, Loyola Academy and Class 7A runner-up Lincoln-Way East.
“We competed and I like to see that we got after it,” Sheehan said. “We’ve got a lot of skill, a lot of speed, and we’ve been working real hard.
“We had a little too many drops by our receivers, so [there are] little holes here that we’ve got to clean up. But defensively, guys are flying around and, overall, I thought we did really well [on Saturday].”
Richards will be without running back Tommy Mister, who rushed for 1,076 yards and 15 touchdowns a season ago, in 2013 after the senior-to-be transferred to St. Rita. Sheehan downplayed the significance of losing Mister.
“We’ve got a lot of guys,” he said. “To be honest, I think there’s really no need for anyone to step up to fill anything. We’ve got guys who can make plays and we need to get them the ball.”
Along with returning starters Muhammad-Rogers and senior wide receiver Tacari Carpenter, senior wide receiver Crishawn Ross and running back Ramontay Hill figure to carry much of the Bulldogs’ offensive load.
Richards’ defense will lean heavily on the senior linebacking trio of Romel Hill, Andrew Venerable and DiAndre Smith, all of whom will be third-year starters. Three other regulars from last year’s unit also return.
“Defensively, we have some holes to fill,” Sheehan said. “We lost some guys that played real well last year, but we’ve got some guys we think can fill in. We like to play defense around here, so we’re expecting to have a good year again.
“[Hill, Venerable and Smith] have been up for three years, so they know what we want to do and they’re running things, and it’s been looking good.”
A Sandburg team that relied on a staunch defense to carve out a seven-win campaign in 2012 is rebuilding a bit on both sides of the ball as the Eagles’ summer practice sessions entered their third week.
Sandburg had, by most standards, a successful season last fall as it went 7-3 and lost only to perennial powers Lincoln-Way East, Homewood-Flossmoor and Bolingbrook. For a school boasting the seventh-largest enrollment among Illinois public schools, however, a first-round playoff exit for the second consecutive year might be considered an underachievement.
With upward of 40 seniors gone from that squad, Eagles coach Dave Wierzal will reload with almost as many upperclassmen this year.
“Our turnover is such that we’re always going to be playing a lot of seniors, but we’re going to play the best players we have,” Wierzal said during the 7-on-7 in Oak Lawn.
Wierzal had hoped Sandburg would be further along after two weeks of summer, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. Senior signal-caller Sean Leland, who saw significant playing time under center last year, is competing with fellow senior Julian Gutierrez for the starting slot. Both quarterbacks will likely see the field this season, Wierzal said.
“I was hoping we’d be a little cleaner [Saturday], meaning making fewer mistakes — mental mistakes,” Wierzal said. “We’re missing [Leland], so these guys are getting good reps, more reps, and that’s a good thing, but offensively we’re not playing as well as I’d have thought.
“Defensively, we’ve been working on trying to break to the ball a little quicker, and we have looked better there, I think. That’s shown a steady improvement from where we were two weeks ago.”
That is a welcome development because the Eagles’ prevention corps is essentially being reconstructed after the graduation of all-conference linebackers Omar Aqel, CJ Brucki, Ryan Coghlan and Nick Ispas. The foursome anchored one of the area’s toughest defenses in 2012.
“We have some concerns on defense,” Wierzal said. “We had one of the best linebacking groups we’ve had at Sandburg since I’ve been around, and all four of those guys are gone. We have a few guys with experience — I think our ‘D’ line is going to be OK — but it’s going to be a lot of new personnel.
“It’s going to be hard to replace some of the kids we had last year, but I think we have the kids there that can do it. The problem is they’re all going to be brand new [starters].”
Three of those starters will be senior linebackers Shawn McHale, Tony Lauciello and Bobby Krop, the latter of whom who will be playing his first season at that position after serving as a fullback in 2012. All three players have been putting in a great deal of time in the weight room since the end of last season, and while not as fast as their predecessors, their size could be an advantage: Lauciello weighs in at 217 pounds, Krop at 215 and McHale at 195.
“It was more them four last year covering basically the whole field,” Lauciello said of the departed linebackers. “[This year] it’s a more balanced defense.”
Sandburg took advantage of its defensive speed last year and played a lot of man-to-man coverage, but it will feature more zone this season, according to Lauciello.
“We have some big shoes to fill, but I think we’re looking good,” Krop said. “I think we have the mentality to do it, kind of a hard-nosed mentality, [where we’re] not being pushed around.
“Just because those guys were all conference and we didn’t see much time at linebacker, I think that makes us more of a hard-nosed team. We’re going to do good this year.”
The RedHawks are coming off a season that began with high hopes, but ended disappointingly with a 34-28 loss to Lyons Township in the first round of the Class 8A playoffs.
The defeat marked the third consecutive first-round playoff exit since Marist’s run to the Class 8A title game in 2009. Nevertheless, coach Pat Dunne is excited another season — and fresh hope for something special — will begin in just two months.
Marist will return its top two offensive playmakers in tight end Nic Weishar and running back Peter Andreotti. Photo by Jason Maholy
“Today’s a great day for all our guys to compete,” Dunne said at the Richards 7-on-7, the third such event for the RedHawks this summer. “That’s the biggest thing out here is getting all our guys competing.
“There are no starters. No one has earned the job yet, but I want to see where they’re at learning curve-wise and also the competition part. That’s the biggest thing — guys going out there, having fun, competing.
“You also see the leadership, too — who are going to be the leaders of this team? It’s a great gauge of where you’re at early in the summer.”
Marist will return its top two playmakers on offense in tight end Nic Weishar and running back Peter Andreotti. Also in the mix will be junior wide receiver Flynn Nagel, who saw significant playing time last season. Senior Jack Donegan will be among those players competing for the open spot created by the graduation of record-setting quarterback Ian Woodworth.
For now, Dunne just wants to see gradual and consistent improvement from his squad.
“We just want to be better each day,” Dunne said. “I think this team, they’re riding in their own journey right now. They’ve worked extremely hard, but each day they’ve got to keep the focus to keep getting better.
“The biggest thing is improvement every single day, and even broken down to every single rep. If we can do that, it’s going to be great year.”
The Knights have gone 3-15 over the past two campaigns, but improved by one victory last season, and coach Jim Bolhuis is pleased with the progress of his rebuilding program.
“Our kids are just responding great,” he said at the Richards 7-on-7. “We’re trying to teach them how to do it right with the conditioning [and] the offeseason work.
“I’m so happy that Coach Sheehan invites us to this thing. He invites us to come and compete, and we do. And man, we go toe-to-toe with these guys, so our kids learn to rise to the proper way of doing things, and that’s so beautiful to see.”
Chicago Christian’s coaching staff has been emphasizing technique, effort and learning the plays.
“That’s all, and the guys are doing it,” Bolhuis said. “I used to coach at Richards and I know the way they do it, and we do it the same way. Our numbers are small, but our talent is high.”
Bolhuis anticipates carrying about 22 players on the 2013 varsity roster. Bolstering the Knights’ ranks will be two transfers and two Chicago Christian student-athletes who have never played football at the high school level.
Senior Kendall Evans, a member of the Knights basketball and track programs, is one of the team’s fastest players and has taken to the roles of cornerback and wide receiver, Bolhuis said. Junior Dan Lawler, another member of the track team, has also played well.
The Knights, who were one of the smallest and youngest teams in the area last season, will return six players who started on varsity as sophomores. Bolhuis expects Christian to be more balanced on offense and for the experience those six juniors gained last year to pay dividends.
“We have runners and we’re going to run the ball,” he said. “It’s going to be a balanced attack.
“Last year, we were too young to really be dangerous, but that youth pays off this year. That group of six sophomores that started are going to be juniors, and now those are six junior leaders and we have them for two more years.”
One of those juniors will be Knights quarterback Christian Bolhuis, the coach’s son.
“He’s working hard,” the elder Bolhuis said. “I just expect him, like the other kids, to pick up where he left off last year. He’s got a little bit more confidence now, he’s got a great skill set, [and] he’s just going to keep contributing the way the other guys are.”