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O’Brien: Von Steuben’s new football program off to a hot start

Overall, football is pretty much failing around the Public League. Every week another school forfeits the season due to a lack of players.

Things are different at Von Steuben. Football is the hot new thing on campus. The Northwest Side school opened in 1928, but this is its first year of varsity football and Panthers coach Al Rood has cobbled together a young, large and enthusiastic group of students.

Von Steuben knocked off Austin 52-28 on Thursday at Rockne Stadium. The Panthers (3-1, 3-1 Public Inter-City 1) are on their way to a successful debut season.

“They are growing, it’s fun to watch,” said Rood. “We have numbers, you see coaches that care. You see coaches that are always coaching. We are young. For a couple guys this is their tenth game ever playing football. We have a lot to learn and we are going to get better.”

Sophomore Juan Lasalle, who rushed six times for 114 yards and scored four touchdowns, came to Von Steuben knowing he’d be able to play football.

“I knew we would be the first team and I wanted to be a part of that, it’s exciting,” said Lasalle. “We are making our fans pretty proud and they are looking forward to seeing us succeed.”

Junior Dominic Onoh, a running back, is one of Von Steuben’s breakout threats. He returned the opening kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown, scored on a 62-yard punt return and a 47-yard run. Onoh had seven carries for 147 yards.

“[Von Steuben] didn’t have a football team when I started but I was hoping for the best,” said Onoh. “I just liked the school a lot. [Rood] was my P.E. teacher freshman year and we talked about it all the time and got a lot of guys to play football.”

Rood, who played at Bishop McNamara and Northern Illinois, has become very familiar with the challenges of Public League football.

“The biggest challenge in building this program is just getting these kids to understand the game of football, all the little things,” said Rood. “[Von Steuben students] come from all over the city so a lot of the players [don’t get home from practice] until 7:30 at night and still have to do their academics.”

The student body is excited about the new team, even if Rood says that “we need to get more of the kids involved, they don’t really understand what football is.”

A good crowd showed up for the Panthers’ first two home games, but it is difficult for anyone to attend a 4:15 start on the other side of the city.

“That’s different,” Rood said. “That’s probably my hardest challenge, I’m not used to playing during the day, I’m used to playing underneath the lights.”

Austin (0-4, 0-3) has only 15 players, but the Tigers made it a competitive game. Quarterback Kenneth Dobbins, a junior, was 5-for-12 for 136 yards. He had a solid connection with senior Larry Brewer, who caught three passes for 97 yards including a 67-yard touchdown.

“I feel bad for teams that have [just 15] guys, it just stinks for them but they fought till the end,” said Rood.