With a week left in the regular season and his team dealing with a six-game losing streak, Naperville North coach Sean Drendel made a keen observation.
“You take from (our struggles) that confidence is a huge piece in high school football,” he said. “When we were confident and doing the things we needed to do, we played pretty well. When we lost some … when we started to see there were some chinks in the armor, some things started falling off course. So what I take from it is you got to be confident and you got to find what you’re good at and control what you can control.”
Picking up victories against Neuqua Valley and Thornton to start the year, designs on getting to the postseason for a 18th straight season were reasonable.
But losing running back Leon Hardy, the team’s leading returning rusher from 2013 with 574 yards, for the entire season after suffering a knee injury in August handicapped the offense as the year went on.
Averaging 10 points through the last seven games of the season, the Huskies’ offense was limited to single digits four times as Chris Gajcak and Evan Kujawski split time at quarterback as they kept trying to find a formula that would work.
Gajcak was the team’s most versatile player on offense in leading the team with 398 rushing yards while grabbing 25 receptions for 268 yards, which marked team highs in both categories.
The defense struggled down the stretch in giving up at least 30 points in four of the Huskies’ last five games, including ending the year having given up at least 40 points in their last three games, a stretch that saw them get outscored 131-17.
“We just didn’t do enough good things this year and some of the things that normally bounce our way or when you’re a confident team, you get breaks,” Drendel said. “When you’re not a confident team, you don’t. So those types of things, it’s a big piece—the confidence issue—and our kids obviously don’t have it right now. It’s a tough one if it snowballs against you, especially when they’ve had everything go their way throughout their careers.”
To say the least, these have been unusual times for Naperville North’s football program.
Accustomed to playing in the postseason on an annual basis, thanks to the hard work and principles instilled from both Larry McKeon and Drendel, which has led to 12 double-digit winning seasons and a pair of state titles, a season under .500 certainly is a shock.
While dealing with that fact, the reality is Naperville North has been past the second round just once since winning the 2007 Class 8A state title when it went 8-4 and reached the 8A state quarterfinals behind Matt LaCosse and Nick Lifka in 2010—Drendel’s first year.
After ending the year on a seven-game losing streak, finishing under .500 for the first time since McKeon’s first year in 1983 and ending a year at 2-7 for the first time since 1982, Drendel is eagerly awaiting 2015.
And he’s doing it while looking at the school across town.
“I’ve talked to a few (coaches) and they say it was a good thing for their program,” Drendel said of trying to put on positive on missing out on postseason play for the first time since 1996. “That they realized what they needed to do and kind of put renewed vigor back into their program. So hopefully that’s the same case for us. … If I remember correctly, Naperville Central didn’t make it two years ago and then last year, they win the state title.”