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A celebration five years in the making is poised to erupt in football-fervent Hampshire.
The resurgent Whip-Purs (5-2) can seal their first playoff bid since 2008 with a win against visiting Johnsburg (1-6) Friday at 7:15 p.m.
"I'm sure there will be a lot of emotions flowing if we get this one on Senior Night in possibly our last home game," said linebacker Damon Mull, who averages a team-best 13 tackles per game.
"It will be the craziest thing," said tackle Mike Gibas, who was in seventh grade when Hampshire last reached the playoffs. "It's safe to say it will be a great experience. I'm just sad to say I don't know that feeling already."
Hampshire finished 3-6 last season, an improvement over consecutive 1-8 showings in 2010 and 2011. However, the general consensus was that just a few plays separated the improving, young Whip-Purs from playoff qualification. The players wanted change. They decided it would come from within.
Paced by seniors like Mull, Gibas, running backs Nick Kielbasa and Chris Calvin, linebackers Ben Bednarek and Mitch Lundry and wide receiver Tim Jansen, among others, most of the returning players were back in the weight room within a week of their season-ending loss to Crystal Lake Central. Instead of clusters of players involved in off-season workouts, the seniors encouraged everyone to lift together.
"It really came from our senior leadership," Cavanaugh said of the increased level of off-season participation. "Our leaders really helped to get all the others going."
"We knew the only way to truly make a playoff dream come true was to work in the off-season for what we wanted to be become," said Kielbasa, whose father, Brian, a Streamwood graduate, played at Minnesota. "We watched how other successful teams got it done and our coaches really encouraged us. But the main thing is we, especially the seniors, just want it so much. People don't realize how much we love football."
Hopes were high going into the season. The defense returned the entire line — senior tackles Gibas (6-2, 240) and Leighton Sheetz (6-0, 275), junior end Steve Kirkwood (5-10, 185) and Nick's sophomore brother Matt Kielbasa (6-2, 250) — along with inside linebackers Mull (6-1, 185) and Bednarek (5-10, 210).
The results have been positive even though a shoulder problem has sidelined Matt Kielbasa for the rest of the season and Gibas has been limited to offensive tackle of late due to a nagging injury. Hampshire is limiting opponents to 23.4 points per game compared to 32.8 ppg a year ago.
The offense had question marks entering the season. Nick Kielbasa missed a good portion of his junior campaign after he separated a shoulder on the first play against DeKalb in Week 2. He returned in Week 7 and finished with 260 yards and a touchdown on 50 carries, a respectable 4.2-yard average. Would he be able to last a full season and match or surpass Phil LaPointe's 629 yards and 13 touchdowns?
Through seven weeks the answer is a big yes. Kielbasa has been a workhorse, carrying 163 times for 1,028 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Another question mark was the quarterback position, vacated by the graduation of two-year starter Kyle Anderson, an all-area pick who threw for 505 yards and 3 touchdowns and rushed for 403 yards and 4 scores when he wasn't leading the defense in tackles.
Junior Nick Mohlman emerged as the starter and has been dynamite. A model of efficiency, Mohlman has completed 59.7 percent of his attempts (43 of 72) and already has 797 passing yards and 9 touchdowns. He has been intercepted just twice. The Whips threw 12 interceptions last season.
Mohlman's success has been due largely to his rapport with Jansen (5-8, 170), who came out of nowhere to become one of the area's top wide receivers. Jansen started for the sophomore team two years ago, but he was buried on the depth chart last season behind a pair of seniors and made just 4 receptions for 43 yards.
In addition to off-season weight training, Jansen ran up hills and sprinted with parachutes strapped to him. He constantly challenged anyone faster than him to a race so he could be pushed. He set new goals daily and continued to achieve them. The 18-year-old Pingree Grove resident runs the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds and has a 35-inch vertical jump. His goals are to shave his 40 time to 4.4 and add three inches to his vertical before the season ends.
The results of Jansen's hard work speak volumes. He has 29 receptions for 620 yards and 8 touchdowns in 7 games. That's 115 more yards and 5 more touchdowns than Hampshire receivers combined for all last season.
"It comes down to work ethic and how much you want it," said Jansen, who attended South Elgin as a freshman. "It comes down to heart."
Better balance between the running game and passing game has made Hampshire's offense more productive. The Whip-Purs average 353 total yards and 33.7 points per game, a considerable improvement from last season's averages of 287 yards and 22.4 points.
Hampshire won't catch Crystal Lake Central, which is 4-0 in the Fox Valley Conference Fox Division. One-sided road losses to the Tigers and second-place Grayslake North saw to that. But the Whips are positioned to clinch their first playoff bid since leaving the Big Northern Conference to join the FVC in 2011. It would be the ninth playoff appearance in 25 seasons for Cavanaugh (120-120), who guided the program to the Class 2A state title in 1995.
"It's always fun," the veteran coach said of making the playoffs. "You miss the experience of that atmosphere as coaches, but it's really such a great experience for the guys on the team. This is a good group that has played together for a long time. They are extremely focused on what they want. It's a very hardworking group. I'd like to see them get that sixth win and get the job done."
Johnsburg is tied for last place in the FVC Fox, but the Whip-Purs say they are taking the Skyhawks seriously for a couple of reasons: 1). Hampshire needed a pair of return touchdowns to beat Johnsburg 27-21 last season and 2). Johnsburg played well against Grayslake North in Week 4 before falling 21-13. The same Grayslake North team pummeled Hampshire the following Friday, 42-14.
"Johnsburg might not have the best record, but they're still a solid football team," Kielbasa said. "They have good talent on offense and their defense is sound. They like to punish you up front, so we can't take them for granted.
"But if we can win it, the feeling will be kind of hard to describe. It would be a great accomplishment after we worked so hard in the off-season and came together and bonded. We want to do this for ourselves but we also want to do it for the Hampshire community. We want them to be happy and proud of us."