HUNTLEY – In the 72 hours that had passed since the losing streak reached three games and players met behind closed doors to get their frustrations into the open, the change in attitude was supposed to be evident.
And yet, Huntley's approach to salvaging its season seemingly appeared the same.
Players in red and black practice uniforms casually made their way from the locker room to the field. Some arrived late, being threatened with running if they didn't cover enough ground before time ran out.
One showed up with only one of his cleats. It was only Tuesday. Red Raiders offensive coordinator Mike Slattery glanced at the ground and shook his head in disbelief.
“You’d think, after 26 years doing this, I’d be used to it,” he said.
Three days before, Huntley coach John Hart had told his players that he was going to keep fighting to turn things around and anyone who wanted to could. Players had nodded their head in agreement, ackknowledging something had to change if the playoffs were to remain a reality.
In consecutive losses to Cary-Grove, Crystal Lake Central and Dundee-Crown, the Red Raiders had consistently repeated the same mistakes. It had been the little things – not blown pass coverages or missed field goals – that had added up during the three-game stretch. But most concerning to Hart was that his team's on-field difficulties was that mental miscues weren’t limited to Friday nights.
Daily practice drills weren’t being executed. Players tended to lose focus in between plays. And making things right, it appeared, wasn't a priority for some, making coaches wonder who wanted to be there and who didn't.
When offensive players leisurely walked off the field following the team’s weekly Gator Drill, in which two players engage in a blocking drill until one is driven to the ground while teammates stand around them in a circle cheering, Slattery snapped.
“Get back here,” Slattery screamed. “We don’t walk off the field. Get ‘em choppin.’”
Players started running in place before dropping to the ground and popping back up. They kept repeating the drill as Slattery watched, screaming that he couldn’t hear players counting as the up-downs continued. Finally, when he deemed players had done enough, Slattery made sure the mistake wasn’t repeated.
“I better never see you walking off this field again,” he said.
As difficult as Huntley’s losing streak was on everyone, it particularly bothered senior defensive end Brandon Dranka.
Dranka, the Red Raiders' top defensive player, mentally replayed his team's previous two losses over and over and had been tossing around pieces of a speech in his head for a week before Huntley’s road game at D-C.
But following a three-point loss in which the Red Raiders had three touchdowns called back on holding and were penalized when an offensive lineman lifted his hand before the ball was snapped with Huntley on the D-C 4-yard line, Dranka decided enough was enough.
On the 13-mile bus ride back to Huntley, Dranka announced a mandatory players-only meeting. With the team assembled behind closed doors, Dranka stood in front of his teammates and asked them to take a look at themselves and consider whether they were pulling their weight.
Dranka’s intention wasn’t to single anyone out. In a tense and emotionally raw setting, Dranka attempted to keep his message positive, hoping to bring the team together rather than causing it to splinter by pointing fingers.
After Dranka finished, linebacker Jordan Kabb, running backs Jake Scalise and Mitch Kawell, safety Mike Andrews and defensive back Nick Martinez all spoke. In their own way, they repeated variations of Dranka's message. With Huntley’s playoff chances slowly slipping away, something had to change.
Accountability had to run roster deep, becoming – Andrews said – a “we thing,” something players needed to hear from their peers rather than from Hart.
“Obviously, whatever the coaches say, we’ll do, but I think if a kid hears (the message) from another teammate, it’s more emphasized,” Andrews said. “And they think, ‘OK, now I really need to do it.”
The losing had gotten to Andrews, who missed Huntley’s last-second loss to Crystal Lake Central with a high ankle sprain. Being forced to watch the game from the sideline was the worst part for Andrews, who knew the self-inflicted wounds had to stop. But if there was a silver lining, it lied in the fact the Red Raiders would be better for playing through adversity.
“I didn’t want to go through it and I don’t think we needed three games, but we needed something to hit us that we need to get it together,” Andrews said. “We just can’t think that we have a new (coaching) staff, field, jerseys – wins aren’t going to come with that. We need to work hard for that.”
A day after Slattery had jumped on his players for not hustling, practice changed.
In Huntley’s final full-padded practice before hosting Prairie Ridge, everything came together more than it had at any other point in the season. There was a different attitude. A renewed focus. Drills were sharp. The pace was crisp. If things were going to change on the field on Friday nights, players understood, they had to change in practice.
“I think it just kind of clicked for everyone that, ‘OK, we can play this hard’,” Andrews said. “I think we reached a new level and I think we’re going to continue to find new levels.”
Twenty-four hours later, Hart knew his team was ready.
“I don’t even need to look at the scoreboard,” Hart told his team on Thursday, “I know how we’re going to do.”
In his pregame speech, Hart’s message was clear: Come out hungry.
The Red Raiders responded with a 34-7 victory. They executed in ways they struggled to in the weeks previous and finally saw the potential they knew existed rise to the surface. Following the 27-point win, players celebrated on the field as colorful fireworks exploded in the sky. With the losing streak finally over, players expressed relief, but remained committed to keeping the momentum going on the road against McHenry.
A .500 overall record after six games wasn’t what Huntley planned for when the season began. But with three games remaining and their goal of advancing to the playoffs still in front of them, the Red Raiders believed they had turned a serious corner.
Now, all that remained is to sustain it for three more weeks. If that happens, Hart believes his team could be dangerous entering the playoffs. If not, he quickly concluded, performances like the one that put the Red Raiders back on track would be written off as a flash in the pan.
“We talked all week about how we had to stay positive, learn from our mistakes and come out as hard as we can,” Scalise said. “There was definitely a vibe going through the whole team. We all knew it, we all felt it and deep down inside, we all had the confidence that we were going to win (against Prairie Ridge).
"But we’re going to get hungrier and hungrier because we know what it takes to make the playoffs and that’s our main goal."
About this series: Huntley football coach John Hart has given the Northwest Herald and sports reporter Jeff Arnold all access to his program for the 2013 season. From coaches meetings to film sessions to the pregame locker room, Arnold will write weekly stories from inside the Red Raiders program, providing a glimpse into the lives of high school football players.