Vernon Hills working through adversity
It's been a rough football season for Vernon Hills.
Close losses have been frustrating for the 2-4 Cougars. Injuries have taken some key players out of the lineup. And news of health issues for head coach Bill Bellecomo a couple weeks ago were surprising and sudden.
Bellecomo had been feeling under the weather when doctors discovered he needed to have a heart valve replaced. The surgery was serious and doctors recommended the Bellecomo take the rest of the season off.
Assistant coach Jay Czarnecki, the Cougars' head baseball coach and a member of the football staff since the school opened in 2000, has been named interim head coach while Bellecomo recovers.
"It's been a difficult season," said Czarnecki, whose team has lost its last three games by an average of 5.3 points per game. "We want to make the playoffs. But when you look at the tough losses or our injuries and the fact that our head coach was in the hospital, it's tough."
Always a coach, even from his recovery bed, Bellecomo sensed that his team could use a pick-me-up. So he made a motivational video that was played before the Cougars' last game.
"One of Bill's daughters taped him and it was a great video," Czarnecki said. "He just talked to the guys about the importance of team and working hard through adversity, fighting through the tough times, all things that carry over into life.
"There were a lot of good messages in that video. I think it was uplifting to the kids. It built their spirits up. It was bittersweet that Bill had to make a video (simply to be able to talk to his players), but it was very effective. And with what he's been going through, I think it definitely put some perspective on where football fits into everything for all of us. Sports is all about life lessons."
Filling the holes: Due to so many injuries, Vernon Hills has had to start a handful of sophomores to stop the bleeding.
Four two-way starters have missed multiple games for the Cougars.
Jake Morris, a middle linebacker and running back, has been one of the most notable players on the sidelines.
Morris, who injured his ankle in the season opener and was out three weeks, was a starter on the 2016 team that went downstate for Vernon Hills.
"Jake is a guy who is a difference-maker," Vernon Hills interim head coach Jay Czarnecki said. "Our defense plays much better with him on the field. He is an animal on the field, the heart and soul of our defense.
"It was great to see him back on the field."
Quinn Geren, Mekhi McCarthy and Ryan Mann, all of whom play both offense and defense for Vernon Hills, have also missed games due to injury.
Geren is the Cougars' top receiver and injured his ankle and elbow versus Wheeling in Week 4. He is flirting with all kinds of career reception records at Vernon Hills.
"We try to get him a ton of touches each game," Czarnecki said of Geren. "It killed us on both sides when he was out.
"Hopefully, we are going to get a lot healthier this week," Czarnecki said of the Cougars' Week 7 matchup against Maine West, which sits atop the Central Suburban North standings. "We have some guys coming back. That will help a lot."
Big numbers: Closing in on 2,000 passing yards on the season, Vernon Hills quarterback Derek Jarrell is flirting with history.
By the time the season is over, Jarrell could find his name scattered throughout the program's record books.
Averaging between 35 to 40 pass attempts a game, Jarrell has plenty of chances to stuff the stat sheet.
"His numbers have just been outrageous, crazy," Vernon Hills coach Jay Czarnecki said of Jarrell. "He loves it, and our receivers love it."
Contributing to Jarrell's prolificness is the fact that Vernon Hills has been snake-bitten at running back with injuries.
Top running backs Ryan Mann and Jake Morris have been hurt for much of the season.
"We've had no running backs," Czarnecki said. "Our only option has often been to throw every down, and Derek's numbers certainly reflect that.
"He's done a good job of taking what the defense gives him, and sometimes when the pass isn't there, he's done a really good job of using his legs. But when we get our running backs (healthy) that will help our offense and Derek (to be more balanced)."
Czarnecki say that Mann and Morris were healthy last week against Deerfield but were used sparingly. They both should see more action this week against Maine West.
No-no's: Student sections love the cheer, "You can't do that," when the opposition commits a penalty.
The Grayslake North football team is probably getting tired of that cheer.
Penalties, and a lot of them, have been a recurring theme throughout the season for the 2-4 Knights, who started the season 0-4.
"Frustrating is how I would describe our season," Grayslake North coach Sam Baker said. "Especially in the first two games, we just shot ourselves in the foot over and over with penalties. Holdings, personal fouls. We've had so many touchdowns called back with penalties. We just looked like the most undisciplined team and we have higher standards than that. It's been really tough."
Baker says that an abundance of young players in key positions has contributed to the costly mental mistakes.
"I don't like to use that as an excuse," Baker said. "But it's big in terms of those young kids knowing how you need to practice (to correct mental errors), and how important the scout team is."
Grayslake North has had at least 4 touchdowns called back this season, and one in each of the last two weeks. But penalties as a whole have been decreasing lately, which has contributed to back-to-back wins against North Chicago and Round Lake.
"It's been significantly better the last two weeks," Baker said. "We are improving, slowly but surely. But if we get a lot of penalties against a team like Wauconda this week, we're going to be in a tough spot."
Run, run, run: Against Round Lake last week, Grayslake North, a pass-heavy team, flexed its muscle on the ground.
The Knights ran for a season-high 300-plus rushing yards, and 5 rushing touchdowns.
Jordan Curtis had 92 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns while Christian Johnson had 133 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns.
"We kept it really simple against Round Lake, and the kids executed well," Grayslake North coach Sam Baker said. "We saw some weaknesses in the defense and we kept calling it. It was our most proficient running game over the last two years."
The 'D' gets an 'A': Among Grayslake North's 54 points against Round Lake last week was a defensive touchdown.
Adam George hit the Round Lake quarterback, the ball popped loose and Brian Kenebrew scooped it up and scored from the Round Lake 15-yard line.
"Adam had his best game of the year," Grayslake North coach Sam Baker said. "He did a great job with sacks and forced fumbles and tackling. He probably had about 10 tackles."
Spreading the wealth: One of the things that Grayslake North does best is pass the ball.
Quarterback Austin Martineau, a three-year starter, puts up gaudy numbers nearly every week. Against Lakes in Week 4, Martineau passed for 300-plus yards and 5 touchdowns, which tied a school record.
Last year, Martineau passed for 21 touchdowns, a school record, and already this year Martineau has 13 touchdowns.
One of the things Grayslake North coach Sam Baker loves about how Martineau runs the offense is how he gets so many people involved.
Of the team's top three receivers, the yardage and touchdowns are nearly equally distributed.
Senior Nick Lovitsch, who missed most of last season with a broken wrist, is the team's top receiver with 387 receiving yards and 5 touchdowns.
Junior Joe Swanson also has more than 300 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns while sophomore Tony Hines has more than 300 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns.
"Austin is doing a lot for us and we are asking him to win games for us and he's doing a great job of running the offense," Baker said.
Lovitsch is a clutch receiver for the Knights, scrambling to get open and then breaking free from defenders.
Swanson has improved his hands over the course of the season and is now burning defenses with his speed after the catch.
And Hines is turning heads with his size and speed.
"Tony is a sophomore and he looks like he is 35. He's a dude," Baker said with a laugh. "He got brought up to the varsity basketball team at the end of last year as freshman. He's obviously very athletic, and he's also smart and strong, has great body control, works hard and he's a great kid, too. He has so much of what you can't coach.
"He's a generational talent and it's going to be fun to watch him the next couple years."
Against Lakes in Week 4, Hines had has best game of the season with 12 catches for 120 yards, including a 49-yard touchdown reception. He also returned a kickoff 85 yards for a touchdown.
This and that: Antioch remains the only unbeaten football team in Lake County at 6-0, 4-0 in the Northern Lake County Conference. Lakes is also 4-0 in the NLCC (5-1 overall) ... Warren is undefeated in North Suburban Conference play (4-0) and 5-1 overall. Stevenson is also 5-1 overall ... The top game in Lake County this week is Lake Zurich (4-2 overall, 3-1 NSC) at Warren. The winner will be in the driver's seat for the North Suburban Conference championship ... Lake Zurich will again be a Homecoming opponent. This week is Warren's Homecoming. This is the third week in a row that Lake Zurich will be trying to ruin a Homecoming. Last week, the Bears defeated Libertyville on its Homecoming and two weeks ago, they got an upset win on Stevenson's Homecoming. Next week, the Bears are finally back at home, for their own Homecoming against Mundelein.