Coming away with the program’s best season in 10 years after winning nine games and reaching the Class 8A state semifinals, Naperville Central seemingly will be riding some momentum heading into 2012.
The trick for Naperville Central coach Mike Stine and his staff is to make sure complacency and a sense of accomplishment for those returning this year doesn’t set in.
“What we’ve stressed to them is (that) we want to build on last year,” Stine said on Aug. 8, the first day of fall camp, of his group. “But last year is last year. Those players are gone. Now it’s up to these seniors and I challenged them. I said, ‘You’ll write, you’re gonna set the tempo for this season. You’re gonna leave your legacy. This is your team. And the juniors, you gotta follow the seniors.’”
One of those juniors, quarterback Jake Kolbe, is going to be heavily counted on to replace the production of the now-departed Ian Lewandowski, while senior running back Nick Thomas will get his chance to be a full-time running back, with Matt Randolph now showing off his wares at North Central College.
Lewandowski, who has moved on to the University of Illinois-Chicago to play baseball, amassed 1,885 yards and 23 TDs of total offense behind center a year ago for the 9-4 Redhawks.
Randolph, one of the most versatile running backs in program history and the 2011 DuPage Valley Conference and Naperville Sun Player of the Year, ran for 1,736 yards and 22 touchdowns, while chipping in with 315 receiving yards and six TDs.
Both Stine and Kolbe are bullish on what the Redhawks’ offense can accomplish this season, spearheaded by their stable of running backs and receivers.
In limited time behind Randolph, Thomas ran for 120 yards and a touchdown in 2011 and will be joined in the backfield by Ryan Clifford’s younger brother, sophomore Kevin Clifford, and junior Tyler Joyce.
Seniors Blake Butler and Lesoda Thompson lead a deep receiving corps for Kolbe to throw to, along with junior Ben Andreas, who “will be the fastest kid on our team,” according to Stine.
“Ian was a great athlete and a great runner, too. I hope to be as good as him,” said Kolbe, who threw for 1,041 yards and 14 touchdowns on the sophomore team last year. “Ian was just a really good player and I think we might be a little better than last year. Losing Matt Randolph, who’s a great player, (hurts), but we also have another great running back, Nick Thomas.
“He’s good at catching the ball out of the backfield and doing all the little things right, which makes him a good player. So I don’t think we’re really losing that much at all. Matt was a great player, but I mean, you’ve just got to deal with what you got. I don’t think we’ll be much different from last year. We’re always gonna be like Naperville Central football.”
Late in the year in 2011, as the Redhawks were making their surprise run to the Class 8A state semifinals, the offense finally caught up to the level where their defense had resided for much of the year.
Saying goodbye to defensive tackle Zach Borta, the 2011 DVC Defensive Player of the Year, linebackers John Dulleck and Matt Moore and defensive back Ross Murphy, Redhawks’ defensive coordinator Mike Ulreich has the luxury of having defensive ends Cody Campbell and Ryan Berg, linebacker Luke Roth and two members of the secondary — Jim Nashert and Kevin Nowak — back to lead a unit looking to maintain its momentum from last year.
“We want to be a strong defense. It makes it a lot easier offensively if you’ve got a great defense,” Stine said. “Obviously, we had some great players last year and it started with Zach up front. Cody played last year and teams had to run at him because they ran away from Zach and he was up to the challenge. So teams are gonna have to feel out what they want to do (with Cody).”
From his defensive end spot, Campbell recorded 52 ½ tackles and 4 ½ sacks, while Nashert and Nowak combined for 84 tackles and five interceptions from their spots in the secondary.
To try and help make up for the loss of Borta on the defensive line, Berg has been moved from linebacker to defensive end after playing in nine games and compiling 30 tackles in 2011 as a junior.
“Yeah we can come close to picking up where we left off in 2011. Ulreich’s got that all planned out,” Campbell said. “He knows what we’re gonna do. We’re probably gonna have to run a little bit more fancy stuff than we did last year because we don’t have the size. But we have playmakers and we should get it done.”