The Huntley football program took a significant step last season.
No, the Red Raiders didn't win the title in the treacherous Fox Valley Conference. They went 6-2 in FVC play, losing to eventual Class 6A champion Prairie Ridge and 6A quarterfinalist Cary-Grove.
However, they made a deeper playoff incursion than ever before, which was coach Matt Zimolzak's primary goal in his first year in charge.
Following a 6-3 regular season, Huntley (8-4) won Class 8A playoff games against Stevenson (21-20) and Fremd (38-30) before bowing out in the quarterfinals against eventual state runner-up Loyola Academy in a 24-0 loss.
Led by third-year varsity standout Eric Mooney at quarterback and senior linebacker and slot receiver Ryan Antonsen, the Red Raiders could be even better in 2017.
"I think at the end of last year we learned to play together," Zimolzak said. "What's different about this team is they already play with that mindset. There's a great dynamic with this group of players and we have good leadership."
Mooney is one of those leaders. Though he was still learning the quarterback position last year after making the switch from running back/receiver, his speed and elusiveness translated to 1,099 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns in coordinator Mike Slattery's run-pass-option scheme.
He completed 116 of 195 pass attempts (59.5 percent) for 1,653 yards and 12 touchdowns and threw 6 interceptions.
Already offered by 12 FCS schools, most recently Harvard and Yale, Mooney is poised to be an even more effective leader as a senior, according to his coach.
"He's like 10 times better than he was at this point last year," Zimolzak said. "Last year he was still learning our offense from the quarterback position. He knew it from running back and slot receiver, but as a quarterback he had to learn who to read and when to read them. He's made tremendous strides to the point it's tough to defend him at practice with our defense."
Mooney has a promising stable of receivers, led by Antonsen, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound leaper with the strength to win jump balls. He finished his junior season with 6 catches for 104 yards and 2 touchdowns. Other targets include 6-2 senior Brian O'Mara (26 rec., 367 yards, 1 touchdown), 6-2 senior Matt Gelander (6-39-0), 6-1 junior Michael Boland and 5-11 junior speedster Ronel Noll.
The Red Raiders used five running backs last season, but running back Melvin Aninagyei-Bonsu is making the position his own. Zimolzak describes him as "shifty with speed and vision to hit the hole."
The offensive line returns senior starter Joey Wilson (6-2, 250). Senior left tackle Justin Precour (6-5, 285) is one of Huntley's strongest players, senior center Ben Dworski (6-2, 270) attended multiple college camps and Colin Reed (6-3, 243) "worked a ton in the off-season," his coach said.
Antonsen is the only Red Raider expected to start on both sides of the ball. He didn't play defense last year following an off-season back injury but "we always knew he could play linebacker," Zimolzak said. "He's going to be huge for us this year."
Antonsen is one part of a strong unit at linebacker that includes senior Charlie Zornow (6-1, 210), who last year made 48 solo tackles and 12 assists, including 3 sacks.
A leader in the secondary is senior Cam'Ron Carrington (5-9, 140) who Zimolzak calls "one of our best cornerbacks in a while."
Junior nose guard Alex Pitrone (6-2, 295) anchors the defensive line. He started the second half of last season and had 3 tackles for loss among his 34. Senior tackle Justin Allen (5-11, 220) is an athletic wrestler who notched 19 tackles (3 for loss) and 1.5 sacks.
"We start this year with quite a bit of speed, a lot more weapons on offense and a solid defensive core," Zimolzak said.