Something had to give when Huntley hired John Hart as its new football coach back in April.
Hart arrived with a track record of success that included a streak of 23 consecutive winning seasons at schools in downstate Illinois and Indiana. In contrast, his new program had only three winning seasons during that same span.
Adding to Hart’s challenge was the fact the Red Raiders were coming off a 2-7 finish in 2011, during which the gap between themselves and the elite teams in the Fox Valley Conference’s Valley Division seemed particularly wide.
Nonetheless, Hart’s confidence in his tried-and-true formula for success raised expectations in Huntley, and sure enough the team didn’t disappoint.
The arrow is now pointing straight up for the Red Raiders, who engineered an impressive turnaround in 2012 by posting a 6-4 record and finishing second in the FVC Valley standings. Those results could have been even better had it not been for a pair of one-point losses, including one that came on a last-second field goal in a 10-9 defeat against Fenwick in the first round of the Class 7A playoffs.
For that progress Hart is the 2012 Courier-News Coach of the Year. To understand how he ushered in the success, it’s important to get a grasp for his detail-oriented approach.
“Coach Hart sets up everything,” Huntley senior receiver Bryce Beschorner said. “Our weight lifting is very routine oriented. At practice everything is planned out to the exact minute so you’re always on schedule and you’re always getting stuff done.”
Hart has two state championships on his resume, including one at his most recent stop at Warren Central High in Indianapolis. He cited a fractured relationship with that school’s principal as the reason for his resignation last April, and Warren Central’s loss turned out to be Huntley’s gain.
Hart’s head coaching record now stands at 244-74 during a career that began at downstate Albion-Edwards in 1985, continued at downstate Mount Carmel and also includes a stop at Reitz High in Evansville, Ind. When asked his keys to success through the years, Hart pointed back to preparation.
“If you can have your drills and practices emulate the speed of the game, or at least get the kids acclimated to the pressures of a game, that’s important,” Hart said. “We practice at a furious pace, and it gets all 115 kids involved. You almost have to hide to not be involved in our program, even if you don’t play that much on Friday night.”
Although Huntley was no doubt prepared to start the season, it still took some in-game experience to get things pointed in the right direction. The Red Raiders opened the year with losses against Crystal Lake Central and Kaneland, but during the second half of the Kaneland game they nearly rallied from a 28-point halftime deficit against a Knights team that went to an undefeated regular season.
Those two defeats preceded a streak of four straight wins against Prairie Ridge, Crystal Lake South, Dundee-Crown and Jacobs, and with the exception of a turnover-filled loss at Cary-Grove, the Red Raiders were competitive in every outing throughout the year.
“The turnaround of our season was actually in a loss,” Hart said. “What happened in the second half of that Kaneland game is they played as hard as they possibly could and found out that when they do, great things happen for them. I think then they realized if they played great football, nobody was going to beat them.”
Hart tends to take a more hands-on approach with the offense, and that unit saw significant production this year as it averaged 28.9 points. A largely new cast will be in place next season, though, as Beschorner, senior quarterback Kam Sallee and senior receiver Jake Lackovic are all moving on.
Despite those departures, expectations will likely be even higher going ahead at Huntley, which had well over 100 players involved in the program this year.
“I think the future is very bright,” Beschorner said. “There are some really good guys coming back. I’m just excited to be the senior class that maybe helped turn it around at Huntley.”
For Hart, the 2012 season marked only the first step in his plan for the Red Raiders. While he is proud of the team’s accomplishments this year, he stresses that the job is not complete.
“What we had to do is prove that we were a playoff-caliber team,” Hart said. “We’ve talked that our next step is to be a state-caliber team.
“After I had come in and met the kids and seen their attitudes and efforts, I said that it’ll happen sooner than the experts think. I think this program is really close to competing at a high level.”
COURIER-NEWS COACH OF THE YEAR HONOR ROLL
1974 Wally Bowman, St. Edward
1975 Leo Vitali, St. Charles
1976 Ron Ellett, Hampshire
1977 Dick Stephens, Elgin
1978 Bill Mack, CL Central
1979 Ron Ellett, Hampshire
1980 Ray Haley, Larkin
1981 Gary Steinbach, Cary-Grove
1982 Bob Hight, CL South
1983 John Pergi, St. Edward
1984 Ron Ellett, Elgin
1985 Don Penza, Marian Central
1986 Bob Hight, CL South
1987 Dave Smiley, Streamwood
1988 Dennis Koerner, CL Central
1989 Steve Patton, Marian Central
1990 Bob Krieger, Larkin
1991 Dick Hartley, Jacobs
1992 Kelly Camp, Marengo
1993 Tony Albert, CL South
1994 Dave Bierman, Burlington C.
1995 Dan Cavanaugh, Hampshire
1996 Buck Drach, St. Charles
1997 John Padjen, Streamwood
1998 Dean Schlueter, Jacobs
1999 Dean Schlueter, Jacobs
2000 Barry Reade, Elgin
2001 Mike Slattery, Huntley
2002 Mark Gould, St. Charles North
2003 Dave Smith, Burlington Central
2004 Tom Meaney, Bartlett
2005 Dan Cavanaugh, Hampshire
2006 Aaron Wichman, Burlington Central
2007 Ted Monken, St. Charles East
2008 Tom Meaney, Bartlett
2009 Mike Fields, St. Charles East
2010 Mike Rolando, St. Edward
2011 Rich Crabel, Burlington Central
2012 John Hart, Huntley