Consistent performance under pressure has Grayslake Central winning

  • Grayslake Central's Kurt Heerdegen is tackled by Grayslake North's Ethan Case and Connor Anguilm earlier this season. Grayslake Central hosts Cary-Grove Friday night in a second round game of the Class 6A playoffs.

      Grayslake Central's Kurt Heerdegen is tackled by Grayslake North's Ethan Case and Connor Anguilm earlier this season. Grayslake Central hosts Cary-Grove Friday night in a second round game of the Class 6A playoffs. John Starks | Staff Photographer

 
By Mike Miazga
Daily Herald Correspondent
Updated 11/4/2021 4:07 PM

Fortunes have turned around in a hurry and in a big way for the Grayslake Central football team.

Prior to the 2021 spring COVID-19-induced season, the Rams had but two winning seasons since they started playing as Grayslake Central in 2006 after the ushering in of Grayslake North High School.

 

In that 14-year span, Central won 33 games and lost a heck of a lot more -- 96 to be exact. The program mowed through five head coaches in that span.

But in current coach Mike Maloney's second year -- what turned out to be the COVID-19 spring 2020 season -- signs started pointing to brighter skies ahead. The Rams went 3-2 and followed that up less than a half-year later with a fine showing that has them in the second round of the state playoffs for only the third time in the school's history (2003 and 2010).

Central (8-2 and with a chance to set a program single-season record for wins) hosts perennial state heavyweight Cary-Grove (10-0) Friday in battle of Class 6A upper-bracket 9 and 1 seeds.

"The biggest factor in our success has been the capacity for our leaders to create poise and performance in adverse moments throughout the game," said Maloney, who also coached recently at Woodstock Marian Central and Johnsburg.

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"Our collective game experience has provided continued opportunities to compete in high-leverage situations, whether it be fourth down needing a conversion, a critical PAT or a short-yardage situation requiring concentration and execution. Our kids have significantly improved their focus and production in these moments. Game after game, those scenarios, in retrospect, have contributed directly to wins leading up to playoff qualification, as well as last week's win against Belvidere North."

It also doesn't hurt to have balance on both sides of the ball. Offensively, Grayslake Central has passed for 1,906 yards and run for 1,887 more, scoring touchdowns on 47 of its 83 possessions. Standout quarterback Darryl Overstreet is 134 of 215 for 1,889 yards with 19 touchdowns against only 5 interceptions -- staring at a legitimate 2,000-yard passing effort to close out his high school career. He's only been sacked 4 times in 10 games. Overstreet has passed for more than 200 yards four times, including a 402-yard effort against Mundelein in Week 2.

His favorite targets are junior Kaiden Miller (37 catches, 768 yards, 9 TDs) and senior Kurt Heerdegen (48 catches, 706 yards, 7 TDs).

"Darryl's rapport with the receiving core has been a significant factor in our long-term success," Maloney said. "Our route running and timing of throws continues to improve and can be a challenge for opposing secondaries."

Central, in the playoffs for the sixth time in school history, has enjoyed a spread-the-wealth formula running the ball with Miller racking up 452 yards on 47 runs with 10 touchdowns (averaging nearly a first down a carry), sophomore Matty Jens at 429 yards on 77 carries with 4 touchdowns and junior Jeremiah Poyser at 417 yards on 69 carries with 4 scores.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"There is a lot of belief, especially this year," Central senior left tackle Chase James said. "Guys have stepped up to the plate. We are a good football team. Everybody has bought in and put in the work. We have a lot of seniors on offense, and people who have played in big games, have come back from deficits and have remained calm and executed. We have some big hitters that help us get the tough yards and people to help keep Darryl upright so he can make the big plays."

Jens (49.5 tackles, 8 tackles for loss), senior Jaeger Breault (46.5 tackles), senior Luca Maravola (9 tackles for loss), Heerdegen (7.5 tackles for loss) and Miller (3 interceptions) lead the way defensively.

"The exciting thing about our current state is we have yet to play our best football," Maloney said. "I don't believe we have hit on all cylinders in any component of our three phases."

James noted Central is hitting on all cylinders when it comes to team cohesion. "A lot of the seniors have been together since Day 1," he explained. "We have bought into the program and believe in each other. A lot of our peers may not have believed we could be this good, but we did. We are a brotherhood. It's awesome to have the chemistry we do. The past couple years we have been not so good, but we have shown this year that we are a good football program."

Maloney said he's been most impressed with the Rams' resilience in the face of adversity, and the challenge of building a new culture infused with championship-caliber standards.

"I believe there's only one way to build a successful football program over time," he said. "Making the small daily disciplined decisions that lead to collective success and eliminating distractions from our goals. As simple as it sounds, that's very difficult for young people. Our young men, especially the seniors, have embraced this way of life and are now experiencing the benefits of being different and choosing the difficult path."

And now the Rams will face, by far, their biggest test of the season against the machine known as Cary-Grove -- a program in the playoffs for the 17th year in a row and with two state titles, three runner-up finishes and 12 appearances in the quarterfinals or later in those last 17 years.

"It's an extremely big game and a big challenge ahead of us," James said. "We can't wait."

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