HARVARD – Jose Mejia did not see this coming through his modest high school football career.
The Harvard senior was a reserve as a freshman and sophomore, and most of his action last season came on special teams. All along, Mejia kept plugging away, diligently hitting the weights and running.
“I didn’t think I’d be where I am now,” Mejia said. “It feels great knowing that everything paid off in the end.”
Where Mejia is now is at starting fullback for an unbeaten team that is two wins away from playing for a state championship. No. 2-seeded Harvard (11-0) plays No. 6 Rockford Lutheran (10-1) in a Class 4A playoff quarterfinal game at 1 p.m. Saturday at Rockford Guilford.
Mejia is one of Harvard’s less-heralded players who has worked his way into a larger role this season for the winningest team in school history. Hornets coach Tim Haak runs down a list of Mejia, defensive backs Fernando Carrera and Michael MacKenzie, and linemen Anthony Milanko, Juan Carbajal and Kyle Peterson who fit that description.
Haak feels his staff’s philosophy of development leads many of his players to success if they stick with the program for four years.
“Our goal is to develop at the freshman level,” Haak said. “If they have success in terms of wins and losses, great. But we can’t keep them on the sideline and expect them to gain experience. We’re going to play kids and develop them for the varsity level.”
Neither this year’s senior nor junior groups won a game as freshmen, which plays to Haak’s point. They didn’t win, but a lot of players got time on the field and learned. Now, they are reaping the benefits with solid supporting players.
“We know what Justin [Nolen] and Tate [Miller] and all those guys who have been with us for three [varsity] years are going to bring,” Haak said. “But we’ve had this success because all the other guys around them elevated.”
MacKenzie said he wasn’t very skilled in his earlier football years, but now he is starting at defensive back and making contributions.
“It’s nice to have the reward with the wins after all the hard work,” MacKenzie said. “[The coaches] always tell us the hard work will pay off, and it has. It’s been worth it.”
MacKenzie started some games at wide receiver last season, but has been more involved with his new position. He may never have thought, as a freshman, he would be in this position.
“I did not think I’d be such a useful player on a team like this,” he said. “It’s pretty insane. The fact that we’re 11-0 hasn’t sunk in yet. This is my second winning record for football, including [5-4] last year.”
Peterson worked his way into the starting lineup at center in the sixth game last season. He stuck with friend Adam Freimund, a two-way starter at lineman, in workouts through the years.
“It’s really exciting,” Peterson said. “It’s just working harder in practice and stuff like that. I knew I’d have a chance to start this year but I’d have to work for it.”
Mejia spent almost every offseason day working with junior running back Christian Kramer. They are the area’s most productive running back tandem with 1,951 yards. Mejia is ninth among area runners with 818 yards and 13 touchdowns.
“Me and Christian were in the weightroom every day,” Mejia said. “I don’t think we missed a day.”
Haak, who keeps an eye on such things, concurred.
“Christian and Jose, in football, wrestling and weightlifting, they didn’t miss a day,” said Haak, who coaches them in both sports. “We go 23 days in football, 19 in wrestling, plus the lifting. They didn’t miss an event. That was great for Jose being around Christian, they’re great friends and buddies and now they’re starting together.”