Hersey vs. Rolling Meadows promises to be a special game
It's been a seven-week journey and now the biggest football game of the season in the Mid-Suburban East is upon us.
Coach Joe Pardun and the Hersey Huskies will load up the bus Friday night for the short trip to Rolling Meadows where coach Matt Mishler and the Mustangs await.
They're both 7-0, so something will have to give.
The winner will need to not stumble in Week 9 to secure the East title outright but for all intents and purposes, Friday's Hersey-Meadows clash is for all the marbles, not to mention a better playoff seed.
And in catching the opening of each team at practice earlier this week, it's clear the buzz is growing and should be at a fever pitch come kickoff time.
The MSL East had belonged to Meadows for several years until Hersey broke the Mustangs' streak last year with a 21-20 win in Week 7. The Huskies also beat Meadows in a playoff game two weeks later.
But last year is for the history buffs. What matters now is Friday night.
"You don't get weeks like this very often," said Pardun, now in his fifth year as the Huskies' head coach. "We talked about embracing it. We've been on a collision course and I kept wondering if someone was going to knock one of us off. We seem to be playing (Meadows) in big games the last 4-6 years. I think there's a lot of mutual respect for both programs. A lot of the kids played together when they were younger and I've known Matt for a long time and he does a great job.
"It's fun to go play against them. It doesn't feel like we're going to play a heated rival, it's more like a competitive atmosphere and we'll just have to see who executes the best."
Pardun mentioned how many of the Hersey and Meadows players competed with and against each other when they were younger, many of them coming through the Arlington Cowboys youth football program -- and at the risk of forgetting anyone, far too many to mention by name.
Two of those, though, are Meadows senior running back Tim Szylak and Hersey defensive end Nick Steger, also a senior.
Szylak is the area's leading rusher with 1,090 yards and a 12.4 yards per carry average, so Hersey's focus this week has been on how to slow down Szylak and the Meadows offense, which is averaging just under 51 points per game.
"I'm just super excited," said Steger, who acknowledged a childhood friendship with Szylak. "It's always fun. Rolling Meadows has always been a great team. We just gotta play as a team. Szylak is going to make some plays. He's a good player so he'll make them. We just gotta really limit him and stop the run."
Pardun knows full well that limiting Szylak will be the key to his team defending its East title.
"He's a handful and watching him on film this week he's even better than I thought," Pardun said of Szylak. "He's big and fast and strong so that's a definite challenge for us."
Meadows isn't all Szylak. Senior Jace O'Hara averages 9.2 yards per carry and senior quarterback Arek Kleniuk has thrown for 873 yards and 13 TDs.
"Right when the ball snaps we have to be aggressive," said Szylak. "Our front five have been doing a great job and our team has come together offensively and defensively. It's a big game and I'm excited. It's going to be a great game to watch."
Mishler, now in his eighth year as Meadows' head coach, credits the offensive line for Meadows' success in scoring this season.
"They're getting better every week and every day," Mishler said of the O-line, which includes Tommy Schell, Joe Boyer, John Carlstrom, Josh DeLuca and Andrew Baroota. "They're the ones creating the holes and our perimeter blocking has been really good."
Hersey is no slouch on offense either, something Mishler and the Mustangs are well aware of. The Huskies average 47 points per game and while they don't have the one prolific rusher like Szylak, junior Jordan Hansen does average 9.8 yards per carry. Hersey's passing game has put up some gaudy numbers as senior Ryan Justice is second in the Northwest suburbs with his 70 completions in 112 attempts for 1,317 yards and 18 TDs. Senior Kacper Rutkiewicz averages 19.3 yards per catch.
"It's a huge game," Mishler said. "We really try to not be concerned about the outcome. Whatever happens happens. We know this is in all likelihood for a conference championship and our boys want that really bad. But it's about controlling expectations, not putting too much pressure on ourselves, going out and playing our game and having fun."
Oops, my bad: In Thursday's column on MSL football coaches, I inadvertently forgot to mention Tim Heyse, the head football coach at Hoffman Estates who was a three-sport standout at Conant. Heyse has done a remarkable job of turning around the Hoffman program and will lead the Hawks into their third straight playoff appearance this season.