Football is a results-oriented sport so it doesn't matter to Huntley coach John Hart that it was by a razor-thin margin his team finished 4-5 and missed the playoffs last year.
It only matters to him that they missed.
"I really don't try to be cavalier, but I put that on me, not making the playoffs," said Hart, 10-9 in two seasons at Huntley and 248-79 in 29 seasons at five schools. "Lots of times we take too much credit as head coaches. But as long as those kids kept responding, we should have been in the playoffs. The character level of last year's team was one of the best of the teams I've coached."
The difference between Huntley finishing 4-5 and 7-2 boiled down to a handful of plays over a nightmarish three-week span: a deep bomb surrendered late in a 3-point loss to Cary-Grove; a 15-yard touchdown pass allowed with 13.6 seconds left in a 7-point loss to Crystal Lake Central; and 2 field goals missed in the second half of a 17-14 loss at Dundee-Crown after the offense twice failed to punch the ball into the end zone.
Though the defense suffered a couple of late gaffes, it held its own statistically. The Red Raiders limited opposing offenses to 18.9 points and 271 yards per game, the second-best totals among FVC Valley teams despite Huntley's fifth-place finish.
Most of the defense returns, led by three defensive linemen: Zach Herbert (6-0, 260), Jeremy Behnke (6-2, 250) and Chase Burkhart (5-11, 230). Tim McCloyn, a highly athletic former linebacker, joins the four-man front at end.
Hart said Herbert is the strongest player the program has had in his three seasons, squatting 550 pounds and benching 375. "Herbie and Burkhart had a huge year in the weight room," he said. "They're not even the same guys."
Three linebackers return, led by 2013 leading tackler Mike Walker. Tim Ryan was the team's best secondary defender last year as a sophomore. He returns bigger and faster, his coach said. Senior Connor Boos (5-11, 175) also returns at cornerback. A sprinter, he qualified for the state track and field meet last spring in both the 100- and 200-meter dash.
Offensively, the area where Huntley needs to improve is red zone efficiency.
"We were atrocious in the red zone," Hart said. "If we would have been statistically average, we would have been 7-2. We want to be great in the red zone and then be better everywhere else. We've individually grown and made ourselves a lot better."
The offense returns several starting linemen, led by senior guard Justus Wood (5-11, 225), and at receiver, where sure-handed playmaker Josh Esikiel (38 rec., 510 yards, 4 TD) and speedster Brandon Altergott (16 rec., 424 yards, 7 TD) are poised for big seasons.
The success of the Huntley offense depends on quarterback efficiency. After a long, close position battle, strong-armed junior Anthony Binetti has emerged as the starter, though senior Jimmy Ambrose is "definitely ready to come in at any moment," his coach said.
The running game is a question mark considering Huntley's top three rushers graduated. Junior Casey Haayer is among a long list of ball carriers who will get a crack at making a dent in the ground game.
Returning to the playoffs for the second time in Hart's three seasons at Huntley would keep the football momentum rolling at a high school where 113 freshmen came out for the sport this fall. They will follow in the steps of a varsity squad that bought into a full off-season of weight room preparation.
"I don't think you can have a better off-season, a better attitude, than what we've had in this past year, including this summer," Hart said. "You wonder if it is going to clip off in the summertime, but I thought we accelerated. Kids who maybe didn't have good summers the year before are already efficient because they've put the time in."