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Daily Herald's 2013 Season Coverage
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Article updated: 9/26/2013 9:37 PM
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Stevenson vs. Vernon Hills becomes a family affair
 

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Stevenson vs. Vernon Hills becomes a family affair
 

At home, Connor McNamara the football player and Bill McNamara the football coach try hard not to make their entire relationship about football.

"We talk about football and we watch games and film together, but not all the time," Connor McNamara said. "We try to talk about other things, too."

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That healthy balance is especially welcomed this week in the McNamara home.

In a unique father-son football twist on Friday night, Connor, the starting quarterback at Vernon Hills, will lead his team into a North Suburban Conference crossover game against host Stevenson, where his dad Bill is the head coach.

"It's definitely different," said Connor, whose dad, because of scheduling conflicts, usually doesn't get to see him play in person. In fact, this will be Bill's only opportunity all season. "Not many people can say they've gotten to play against their dad's team in a varsity football game."

Connor is a sophomore and will be starting just his fourth game. He took over for senior quarterback Jordan Freibrun, who broke his leg in the season opener.

"I think (the timing of this) is really weird, too," Connor said. "I was hoping we'd get to play Stevenson in a crossover while I was (in high school), but then when it was on the schedule for this year, I didn't know if I'd really get to play much. How I came into being the (starting) quarterback this year was so unexpected and I feel so bad for Jordy (Freibrun). But now I'm getting to go against my dad. I think it's going to be really fun."

It will be a little strange, too.

Connor knows Stevenson football just about as well as he knows Vernon Hills football. He and his older brother Dylan used to be ball boys at Stevenson games when they were kids. They got to know the players and other coaches there. They cheered hard for the Patriots.

Now, those same Patriots will be trying to make Connor's life as difficult as possible. Quite the juxtaposition.

"I still go on the Stevenson sideline and cheer for them. Last year, I went to their playoff game," Connor said. "I stayed down on the end, out of the box and away from the players. But I still like doing that to be with my dad. I want to see him do well.

"I just won't be cheering for Stevenson this week."

Kelly McNamara will have to cheer for both Stevenson and Vernon Hills this week. Kelly is Bill's wife and Connor's mom.

"We've been talking about how my Mom is going to have it the toughest," Connor said. "Once we start playing, it's just going to be another game for me and my Dad. But I think my Mom will be a little uncomfortable.

"She's going to be more relieved than anyone when it's over."

Jordan is returning:

No, not that Jordan.

But at Vernon Hills, there's definitely an excitement at the thought of Jordan Freibrun returning to the mix. It should be happening sooner rather than later.

The senior quarterback suffered a broken leg in the Cougars' season opener five weeks ago and is nearing the point where he will be ready to start competing again.

"He's been talking with his doctors and it looks like he'll be back in the next week or two," Vernon Hills coach Bill Bellecomo said. "The North Chicago game (next week) would be a gift, the Lakes game (in two weeks) is more likely.

"But he's working every day and he's anxious to get back."

Freibrun likely won't go back to his old spot at quarterback, which is now filled by sophomore Connor McNamara, who helped the Cougars to their first win last week.

"At quarterback, you've got to take so many hits and make so many cuts," Bellecomo said. "Even if Jordan is back, he might not be ready for that.

"I'd like to ease him in. I think we'd have him at safety, a position he also played for us before he got hurt. I think Jordan was one of the best safeties in the conference last year, so I think he'd do really well there when he comes back."

Numbers game:

Turnovers have told a poignant story for Vernon Hills this season.

The Cougars rolled up 17 turnovers over the first three weeks of the season and started out 0-3. Last week against Grant, the only Vernon Hills turnover was a Hail Mary pass into the end zone at the end of the first half that was intercepted and downed as time expired. No damage done.

It probably wasn't a coincidence that the near-turnover-free Cougars got their first win of the season in that game.

"The 17 turnovers was hard because that's bad for a season, let alone just three games," Vernon Hills coach Bill Bellecomo said. "We've talked a lot in recent weeks about limiting turnovers and mental errors and we were finally able to do that against Grant.

"We know that we can't keep shooting ourselves in the foot if we want to be able to win games."

Long drives:

It all adds up.

Carmel coach Andy Bitto wasn't surprised that his offense had a tough time last week turning St. Viator turnovers into points. Over the years, Bitto has done his own research about when a high school offense is efficient and when it's not.

He says that, statistically speaking, the Corsairs didn't exactly start their drives against St. Viator with the odds in their favor.

"Our defense got us three turnovers, but they were all inside our own 5-yard line," Bitto said. "Now, the offense has to go 95 yards, and in my experience, any time an offense has to take more than 8 to 10 snaps, it's more than likely that there will be some kind of costly mistake or penalty or turnover. High school teams usually make mistakes one out of every eight plays."

That's just about what happened to the Corsairs (1-3) against St. Viator. They had some mistakes and turnovers that stalled promising drives at midfield.

"We started one drive at our 1-yard line and we got four first downs, but they still got the ball back on our side of the field," Bitto said. "We just need to be more consistent. We can't have a couple of good plays and then a couple of bad ones."

Big turnaround:

Two years ago, North Chicago suffered through a 1-8 season.

But the Warhawks saw a silver lining. They knew the lumps they took would pay off eventually. That season, head coach Glen Kozlowski was playing young, inexperienced sophomores on both sides of the field.

In fact, a majority of his defense was sophomores.

Now, those sophomores are seniors, and this season is the payoff.

The Warhawks are 3-1 and boast one of the best defenses in the North Suburban Conference, yielding just 11.3 points per game.

All five of North Chicago's linebackers are three-year starters. Khalil Rogers, Tazari Bryant, Richard Cunningham, Arnold Shead and Jamero Shelton are at the heart of the Warhawks' 3-5-3 formation, which will take on Grant on Saturday.

"That group of linebackers is tremendously talented," Kozlowski said. "They're all strong and fast and they've all got a lot of confidence in what they're doing on the field."

Both Rogers and Shead are getting serious Division I looks.

Closed book:

The Grayslake North offense has been plenty prolific through four weeks, averaging 41 points.

The scary thing for opponents that are still on the schedule is that all of that damage has been done with top running back Titus Booker mostly on the shelf.

Booker suffered a high ankle sprain in the third quarter of the season opener against Lakes. He played through it and finished with 268 yards and 3 touchdowns on 33 carries.

But those gaudy numbers came with a price. Booker sat out the next two games and was used only sparingly last week. He had just 5 carries for 23 yards in a win against Johnsburg.

"We weren't playing very well against Johnsburg and we could have really used Titus," Grayslake North coach Steve Wood said. "But we knew it just wasn't worth it to push him. You could tell he just wasn't himself. We're going to continue to bring him along slowly."

According to Wood, Booker has been practicing this week with the Knights, but will continue to be on a reduced load until his ankle shows more improvement.

"To the naked eye, he looks fine," Wood said of Booker. "But when he's out there and it's full contact and he's making cuts, that's when (the ankle) is an issue."

Reaping rewards:

Before Grayslake North earned its first playoff berth in school history last season, it was slim pickings for the program.

The Knights had won just 13 games over the previous six seasons for an average of 2.2 wins per year. In two of those seasons, Grayslake North went winless.

Now, the 4-0 Knights are moving to the opposite end of the spectrum, and it couldn't be more satisfying for their loyal coaches.

Despite all of the losing, the Grayslake North coaching staff has remained relatively unchanged over the years, and its reward has included not only last year's 8-2 playoff season and this year's 4-0 start, but also a rise in wins program-wide.

The freshmen are 4-0 and the sophomores are 3-1.

"We're happy because we're 11-1 as a program right now," Grayslake North coach Steve Wood said. "Most of our coaches have stuck with us and it's great to see all the effort pay off. All of us remember those 0-9 and 1-8 seasons and that's what makes this season and last season so much more special."

Wood says that Brian Johnson, Andy Strahan, Jim West, Brian Horn, Jon Sawyer and Scott Kapchinski are among the coaches who have been with him since the beginning.

Getting physical:

Mundelein's one win this season after last year's winless campaign isn't the program's only indicator of improvement.

Head coach George Kaider is also looking closely at the physicality of his players, and is convinced the Mustangs are moving in the right direction.

"One year ago, we felt like we were out-manned and out-matched every week," Kaider said. "We were weak, we weren't confident in our ability to hit and tackle and be strong (in the trenches).

"But we're a lot stronger now. We've made a lot of gains in the weight room. We're coming off the ball harder. Our kids are confident they can keep up with the teams we play."

Outside linebackers Albert Mota and Alex Edmonds have been leaders in the weight room and on the field for the Mustangs. They set the tone with their aggressive play.

"They are both physical players and both have a knack for finding the football, Kaider said. "They just make big plays for us and I think a lot of it is how physical they are."

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