During summer football work, Huntley is showing an ability to battle through difficult circumstances and win close games.
That’s in direct contrast to last season, when just one win from among four losses — 16-13 to Cary-Grove, 34-27 to Crystal Lake Central, 17-14 to Dundee-Crown and 27-20 to Jacobs — might have gotten the Red Raiders into the playoffs.
“We’re working our tails off,” wide receiver Josh Esikiel said. “Actually, last year was very disappointing, and coach (John) Hart was saying we’re not letting that happen to us again.
“We’ve hit the weights hard and practiced that way this summer.”
Esikiel said the Red Raiders have learned it’s also not all physical.
“Our attitudes are different,” he said. “Last year after a game like those (close ones) happened and if we lost we were all pointing fingers.
“Now if something bad happens, like out here in 7-on-7, we’re all kind of looking at ourselves, wanting to know what we have to work on to get better, the next play, the next game.”
And during 7-on-7 wars Thursday and Friday at Wheaton Warrenville South’s Red Grange Invitational, the Red Raiders displayed their newfound ability to turn nothing into something.
Playing Barrington and facing elimination with a loss, the Red Raiders got a 45-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Anthony Binetti to Esikiel — the full length of a 7-on-7 field — and then Esikiel’s catch of a batted 2-point conversion pass to tie it. After they blew the lead with three seconds left, Binetti threw a 45-yard Hail Mary pass that Esikiel caught without deflection in the end zone on the final play from scrimmage. Six-foot-4 wide receiver Eric Nehslen laid out for the 2-point conversion catch to produce a stunning 25-24 victory.
“We’re trying to get away from that kind of thing,” Esikiel said, laughing, adding they want to make it easier on themselves.
If the quarterback battle between Binetti and Blake Ambrose works out, the Red Raiders could have an offense in the fall to match up with any team in the tough Fox Valley Valley.
“As long as the receivers keep doing the job they have been doing, we’ll be all right,” Hart’s offensive coordinator Mike Slattery said. “The quarterbacks are pushing each other, so it’s fun … the kids working hard and learning lessons. The quarterbacks are really pushing each other.
“It’s just touch football so it’s tough to gauge, but they are learning.”
Esikiel will be a primary part of any success the Red Raider achieve. Coaches see a possible lower-level Division I or Division II player in the 5-10, 180-pounder, who has been to Northwestern and Illinois camps in an attempt to improve and put his name out there for scouts.
In Friday’s 4-1 effort during pool play at Wheaton North, Esikiel put on a show with a one-handed grab along the sidelines and another one-handed catch down the field. One of his one-handers came against the same Barrington team he helped beat with his last-second catch Friday. He also helped the Red Raiders down a fleet group from Mississippi.
“He’s a hell of an asset for us,” receivers coach Mike Naymola said. “They had to double-cover him last year. But I think we’ve got some nice weapons to go with him, so we’re going to make it hard for people to double him.”
The goal for Huntley is to get back into the playoffs after missing out in 2013.
Slattery said finishes like the wild 7-on-7 victory can only help.
“That’s the stuff they carry with them,” he said. “You hope that they take that sort of stuff and build off it.”