Maine West hoping to add to the program's list of firsts
It's been a season of firsts for the Maine West football team and the Warriors are hoping to add another one to the list Friday night in Des Plaines.
This season the Warriors won their first outright conference championship as a member of the Central Suburban League. They did claim a share of the 2017 title with Deerfield and Highland Park but a 31-30 loss in double overtime to Deerfield in Week 9 cost Maine West the outright crown.
The last time a Maine West football team won an outright conference title was in 1963 when the school competed in the Mid-Suburban League.
This is also the first time a Maine West team has won eight games in a season since 1959, the first year the school played football.
Now, the Warriors want to take that next step and win a playoff game, or two, or three, or ... you get the picture. The program is 0-5 in playoff history, with last year's qualification the first time since 2002 they've even had a chance.
And now also becomes revenge week 2 for the Warriors.
They were able to avenge last year's Week 9 loss to Deerfield with a 32-0 blanking of their CSL North rival last Friday night, and now the Warriors want to do the same to a Benet Academy team that ousted Maine West in the first round of the Class 7A playoffs last year 35-13.
So where does this resurgence of Maine West football begin?
It starts with coaching. Jason Kradman is now in his fifth season as Maine West's head coach, having come to Des Plaines after a successful run as the head coach at Miami Beach (Fla.) High School.
"He's just created such a good bond between all the coaches," said senior two-way standout Jake Bellizzi, who was called up to varsity midway through his freshman season and has been there ever since.
"We have such a tight coaching staff that has made relationships with our players and made us all closer. We're more of a family and we all work really well together."
But as we all now, coaches can only put the pieces in place. It takes the players on the field to perform and the Warriors have done that and then some this fall, with the 6-foot, 210-pound Bellizzi leading the way, both out of the backfield and as a middle linebacker.
All Bellizzi has done this season is rushed for a Northwest suburbs leading 1,407 yards, averaging 7.6 yards per carry, and lead a dominant defense that has recorded three shutouts including two in Maine West's last three games.
"I'm really proud because we've really stepped it up and turned this program around since I was a freshman and everything coach Kradman has done for us," said Bellizzi, who played on teams that went 3-6 and 4-5 before last year's 7-3 squad and then this year's 8-1 record.
Kradman knew coming into the season that he had a strong core group to work with, and that people had started to notice Maine West was no longer a football afterthought.
"I definitely think we got some notoriety and some mention last year, having been the first time we made the playoffs in 15 years," he said. "We knew we were going to have a good team coming back. We had five all-conference guys coming back and a decent amount of sophomores who started on varsity. We were excited about our quarterback (junior Danny Kentgen, who has thrown for 1,396 yards and 18 TDs) and we had Jake coming back. He was conference defensive player of the year last year and he's still a great defensive player but he really turned the corner offensively this year. He's a physical kid, a smart football player, and our offensive line (Michael Wilson, Mike Bartusiak, Costa Paschos, Lindon Ujkashi, Danny Daood, and an injured Amir Cavic) continues to improve. Add in some of the guys on the perimeter and we can give people some problems because we can spread it out and throw it if we need to."
Kradman strongly believes the biggest reason for the Maine West turnaround starts with its offseason workouts.
"We have a great group of guys and our guys have bought into our offseason program," Kradman said. "We started it when we first got here but it took a year or so to get some traction. By the time we were year two going into year three that was a group that had been with us and we started doing our workouts at 6 a.m. instead of in the afternoon. We wanted to separate the guys who were truly committed from the guys who weren't and I think the returns have showed. We feed our guys breakfast after those workouts and try to show them some appreciation. They've bought in and they've been accountable."
Junior tight end/defensive end Isaiah Siem Davis couldn't agree more.
"A lot of (the Warriors' success) is because of what we do in the offseason," he said. "A lot of early morning grinds and putting a lot of work in the offseason has got us to where we are now. Last year our regular season ended with the loss to Deerfield and we got revenge on them so we're looking to take the next step and get revenge on Benet."
Paschos, the CSL defensive player of the year, believes there's a pride factor involved as well.
"The big key is for our team to stay together and play as a family," he said. "We make plays for each other and we continue to make each other proud and the town and the school proud. Playing for coach Kradman has been a wonderful thing. He's really turned the whole program around and made this school focus more on football. He's made the community proud and he's made all of us better players and students, not just in the classroom but also in the community."
And now comes Benet. Kradman and his team know the East Suburban Catholic team will be a tough challenge again. The Redwings advanced to the semifinals last year and their three losses this season are to teams with a combined record of 23-4.
"We know they're a good program, well coached and in a good conference," Kradman said. "They made a great run last year and they have a lot of playoff experience. I think we're a better team this year. Nothing against last year's squad but I think we're a more well-rounded program and we learned a lot from last year."
Bellizzi, also a standout wrestler, just wants to play more football.
"I just want to do whatever I can do to get the outcome we want so we can play another week," he said.
And, add to that list of firsts.