After splitting time at quarterback with Tom Zale last season, Oak Forest senior signal caller Nick Ciufia looks poised to pilot the Bengals to their 14th straight playoff berth as the full-time starter.
Ciufia got the starting nod when an injury struck Zale last year, and he earned the respect of his coaches by stepping in and keeping the Oak Forest offense in rhythm. Zale returned, but Ciufia played well enough to form a rotation, and the duo led Oak Forest to a 10-2 record and two playoff victories.
“He’s the guy,” Oak Forest coach Brian McDonough said. “He’s very athletic, he works hard and he’s fast. And he can throw the ball. He’s got the whole package for what we do.”
Oak Forest has six starters back on offense, and Ciufia said he’ll look to get the ball to four-year starting fullback Matt Barry and Connor Rago, a starting wide receiver as a sophomore last season.
“Matt Barry. What do you not like?” Ciufia said. “He’s a tank. He’s got speed. We’ll try to keep him healthy.”
Barry, the only four-year varsity player to ever compete for McDonough, tore his ACL in a Week 5 loss to Lemont. Barry ran for over 1,200 yards as a freshman.
McDonough said Barry is cleared, but the coaching staff plans to ease him back onto the field.
“It makes it a lot easier on me with Matt out there,” Ciufia said. “It makes the reads easier because everyone wants to crash in and hit him. I get to run free a little bit because of that.”
Most of the skill positions look set for Oak Forest. The biggest question mark is the defense, where 11 new starters are ready to take the field.
“It’s scary — especially the way our season starts,” McDonough said.
Three of Oak Forest’s first four games come against Brooks, a returning state quarterfinalist, and South Suburban Blue rivals Lemont and T.F. South. The Bengals split the conference championship with Lemont and T.F. South last season.
“I wouldn’t have minded it if it had been at the end of the year, but this year it’s right in the beginning,” McDonough said of playing Lemont and T.F. South. “And then it doesn’t get any easier with Tinley Park and Bremen, who will be good again.”
McDonough pointed to cornerback Demetrius Graham as a player to watch on the defensive side of the ball, along with junior linebackers Pat Kristen and Ahmad Ashkar, who are members of the wrestling team.