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Among the many tasks facing Elgin first-year football coach Kyle Rohde and his staff is a basic but important one: getting his players to believe they can win.
Some programs experience success at the lower levels, but Elgin's senior and junior classes took their lumps as sophomores because their best players were pulled up to the varsity. A case in point is senior quarterback Ryan Sitter, who has been playing varsity football since the beginning of his sophomore season.
"These classes haven't won a ton of games collectively as a group," Rohde said. "Both classes had their sophomore teams broken up out of necessity to help the varsity. So maybe their sophomore team only won 2 or 3 games as opposed the 5 or 6 they could have won had everyone stayed put. So the winning approach is something we have to mold to really get them going in the right direction."
A total of 28 varsity players will take the field in the season opener against Dundee-Crown's roster of 48. Though the Maroons clearly lack depth and will be undermanned every week from a numbers standpoint, they do not lack talent, particularly at the skill positions.
The backfield boasts speed, power and experience, led by third-year varsity running back Jaylen Clemons (5-10, 215). Though he missed some time due to injury last season, Clemons was nonetheless able to gain 539 yards and score 5 touchdowns on 113 carries, an average of 5.7 yards per tote.
"When Jaylen has his pads on and is running hard, he's one of the toughest guys in the conference to tackle," Rohde said.
The Maroons possess a 1-2 punch in Clemons coupled with fullback Dan Page (6-0, 195), a bruising, short-yardage rusher who as a junior carried the ball 38 times for 106 yards and a touchdown.
Joining Clemons and Page in the backfield at times will be Dontrell Gaddy (6-0, 172), who was playing quarterback at the sophomore level last season until he was called up to the varsity midway through the campaign.
Also in the mix to run the ball are junior Trae Sallis (5-5, 170), who played varsity as a sophomore, and Jordan Smith (6-1, 180), a junior who played wide receiver last year. Rohde said Gaddy, Sallis and Smith are versatile players who might line up in the backfield, the slot or the outside depending on the play.
Sitter (6-1, 175) directs the show. He demonstrated improved decision-making skills as a junior, when he cut his interception total by 10. Last year he completed 47 of 123 attempts for 662 yards, the fifth-highest passing total in the area, and 4 touchdowns. A three-sport athlete, Sitter broke his nose over the summer playing baseball when the pitcher was struck by a line drive, but he has since healed from surgery and is expected to start in the season opener.
The offensive line has some experience and good size, highlighted by returning seniors Abel Barazza (5-8, 220) at guard and tackle Zack Rago (6-3, 280). They will be joined by newcomers Alex Guerrero (6-4, 275) and Travail Powel (6-4, 220).
"There's a chance we could have some meaty guys up front," Rohde said. "A couple of these guys are new and haven't played too much football, so it's a matter of will they pick it up or not."
Two wide receivers are junior Johnny Higgins (5-8, 150), now in his second varsity season, and Michael Behining (6-2, 160). He played tight end for the sophomore team last year and later quarterbacked the squad after Gaddy was called up.
The defense is keyed by Page at inside linebacker. The returning starter will be flanked by outside linebackers Behining and Clemons. Smith will also see time at the position.
The defensive front is keyed by returning linemen Barazza and Rago. Another player the new Elgin coach expects big things from is versatile lineman Isaiah De La Cruz, a quick-footed player with a strong football IQ who can play tackle, end or nose guard depending on the situation.
Higgins returns to guide the secondary from his customary strong safety position. The other safety position will be manned by a rotation of Gaddy and Sitter. Elgin's cornerbacks are both incoming juniors: Clay White (5-8, 150) and Dennis Keophilalay (5-10, 145), the younger brother of former all-conference linebacker Elrich Keophilalay.
"We're pretty fast and we have a solid core of guys who can make good decisions on the field," Rohde said. "I think we will be competitive, a lot more competitive than we were last year. I think we can get a few wins if we do things the way I want them to do them. I expect this team to compete every week. If we can execute the way I expect them to, we can be in ballgames. Then we can rely on our playmakers to get it done, but they've all got to buy into it.
"But my number one goal for this year is to have everyone be academically eligible and play every week. My goal is to have no kid sit out academically. The second goal is to beat Larkin."