Deerfield narrowly misses out on playoffs

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For about a 24-hour period last week, a feeling of helplessness took center stage for members of Deerfield’s football team.

After defeating rival Highland Park by a touchdown in the regular-season finale Friday night, the Warriors (5-4 overall) gathered their belongings, went home — and waited.

Despite the fact they’d just won their fourth consecutive game — making them playoff-eligible — it wasn’t until Saturday night that the Warriors knew their fate with 100 percent certainty. There they stood with 37 playoff points, hoping beyond hope it would be enough for a postseason berth.

As it turned out, It wasn’t. Deerfield needed 38.

“I was actually with one of my friends on the team, and we were at the Northwestern football game (on Saturday) when we found out we didn’t make it,” Deerfield junior quarterback Benjamin Ethridge said. “We found out together, and it was a pretty depressing moment.”

For players like senior offensive/defensive lineman Patrick Johnson, who had a pair of sacks in his final high school game, it also was an emotional time.

“Even before I knew whether or not we were in the playoffs, it started to hit me right after we beat HP that this might have been my last game,” Johnson said. “I was at my friend’s house with two other guys from the team when I found out we didn’t make it. We looked it up (online), and we were pretty upset about it. But at that point, we knew there was nothing we could do to change it.”

Another senior, wide receiver/defensive back Brett Freedberg, felt similar emotions moments after walking off the field, in uniform, for what wound up being the final time. He shook hands with fans and hugged many of them as he made his way toward the exit.

“This is a really confusing moment for me right now,” Freedberg said. “Being a part of this team, and winning our final game against our division rival, meant the world to me. This is something I will always miss being a part of, no matter what.”

It’s a credit to each player that they were able to stand tall in the face of such uncertainty and adversity. And that’s something 12th-year Deerfield coach Steve Winiecki thinks he’ll miss about this particular group.

“I’m real proud of our kids this year, especially our seniors, who have really come a long way,” Winiecki said. “We had a lot of bumps in the road … a lot of ups and downs. They stayed the course and kept doing what they were coached to do. When we were 1-4, we could’ve just quit, but our guys refused to. That says a ton about their character. Even in the HP game, our guys battled until the very last second.

“I’m disappointed for them — especially our seniors — that we hit our stride just a little too late and didn’t get that extra little bit we needed to make it.”

Winiecki admitted that after missing the playoffs by just one point, things such as the team’s nonconference scheduling crossed his mind. But trying to schedule tougher opponents, which can ultimately lead to more playoff points at the end of the season, is a double-edged sword.

“Yeah, you think about (scheduling) a little bit after something like this happens,” Winiecki said. “We had a crossover games against Maine South (9-0), and St. Viator (5-4) in Week 2. Both are playoff teams.”

The results of both games were losses. Deerfield’s other two nonconference games were against Zion-Benton (a 14-12 win) and Waukegan (a 14-7 loss).

“A lot of these contracts, you have to sign (to play other teams) a year-and-a-half out, so they’re two-year contracts,” Winiecki said. “Sometimes, they’re a little bit of a crapshoot, too.”

So the Warriors look ahead to the 2013 season as a program that, despite this year’s setback, has enjoyed tremendous consistency and success. In fact, Deerfield hasn’t had a losing season since 2004.

“We have a lot of things to look forward to,” Winiecki said. “Especially on offense. We’re gonna have eight or nine kids coming back next season at six or seven positions on offense. So we’re gonna have some experience returning. Our freshmen and sophomore teams won conference championships this year. So we like the talent that’s coming up. The arrow is pointing up, and has been pointing up for a while now.”

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