SouthtownStar top 10 countdown: No. 9 Oak Forest

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With 14 starters from 2012 lost to graduation, it would suggest Oak Forest is in for a difficult season.

The Bengals, however, don’t rebuild. They reload.

The proof is in the numbers: Oak Forest has qualified for the playoffs 14 consecutive years during coach Brian McDonough’s 16-year run.

If Oak Forest is to reach 15 straight, there’s no doubt a group of inexperienced juniors and seniors is going to have to mature in a hurry.

“We’ll get our five wins and then some,” said Connor Rago, a junior. “We lost a lot of starters, but we worked hard over the summer.”

According to Rago, even some fans are doubting the Bengals.

“People in our own school are underestimating us,” he said. “But all that’s doing is energizing us. We might not have the known talent we had last year. But we’re determined to prove people wrong.”

That “known” talent led Oak Forest to a 10-2 record last season. Both losses were to South Suburban Blue foe Lemont, the second in the Class 6A quarterfinals.

The Bengals return six starters on offense, led by quarterback Nick Ciufia, fullback Matt Barry and Rago, the latter of whom can play receiver and wingback. Ciufia, a 6-2, 185-pound senior, has a strong arm and slick footwork.

Barry, a four-year varsity starter, rushed for more than 1,000 yards as freshman and sophomore. However, the 6-foot, 225-pound senior suffered a season-ending knee injury during the Bengals loss Sept. 21 to Lemont. If he returns to form, the Bengals offense could rank among the most explosive in the Southland.

“Matt’s been totally cleared to play and he’s making progress,” Oak Forest coach Brian McDonough said. “The plan is to start him opening night. Ciufia looks fantastic. He’s a game-changer. Rago looks like he’s ready to take the next step this season.”

Luke Tuccola (6-1, 225) and Jimmy Hogan (6-foot, 215), both seniors, anchor the O-line.

On defense, cornerback Demetrius Graham (5-8, 170) and linebacker Patrick Kristin (6-foot, 180) are the lone returnees. Juniors Jerry Mallet (5-11, 185) and Ahmad Ashkar (5-11, 185) will join forces with Kristin at linebacker to form a solid trio.

The early part of the schedule doesn’t do the Bengals any favors. A season-opener against Phoenix is followed by games against Brooks (10-2 last season), T.F. South (7-3) and Lemont (11-2).

The good news is that, with the exception of a Week 4 road trip to Lemont, six of the first seven games are home.

“I think it’s going to be a challenge in conference,” Ciufia said. “Obviously, last year we had loads of talent. This is a completely different team, but I feel like we’re going to be a good team.”

If Oak Forest is going to be a good team, Ciufia is prepared to take a leadership role, not only physically, but mentally.

“A lot of the seniors helped me out last year,” he said. “Now I have to step up and lead the team. People have their doubts about us, but I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people.”

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