Clark eager to keep its playoff run alive

Clark earned its first IHSA playoff win in program history last week, 28-16 over Elmwood-Brimfield, It was a Public League football success story. It was not, however, an overnight success story.

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Clark’s Willie Taylor (1) finds the endzone against Raby.

Clark’s Willie Taylor (1) finds the endzone against Raby.

Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun-Times

Clark earning the first IHSA playoff win in program history last week, 28-16 over Elmwood-Brimfield, was a Public League football success story.

It was not, however, an overnight success story.

The road to the second round of the postseason — Clark (10-1) plays at 1 p.m. Saturday at Reed-Custer (10-1) — began years ago for the Eagles and their coach, Kevin Simmons.

Simmons played at Morgan Park, graduating in 1989. He moved on to Northern Illinois as a student and then entered law enforcement with the Federal Reserve. “I planned on staying there and retiring,” he said.

But after seven years, he was caught up in the downsizing of the Federal Reserve police force: “Last one hired, first one fired.”

Simmons got a security job at Orr, which led to a spot on the football staff. When the administration changed at Orr, Simmons went to work at Clark while still coaching football and track at his old school.

Before long, Clark’s principal invited him to coach for the Eagles.

“The first three years it was rough,” Simmons said. “Real rough.”

Clark was 6-20 over those three seasons.

The constant losing was something Simmons wasn’t used to. During his youth football days with the Harvey Colts, he said, “I didn’t lose a game for four years.”

In those early days at Clark, he said, “there were plenty of nights [thinking], ‘Do I know what I’m doing?’

“Knowing the game and coaching [it] are two different things. I had to learn on the fly.”

One of the things Simmons learned is the need to go past Xs and Os.

“As the years went on, I started establishing the culture,” he said.

Now, Simmons wears many hats at Clark, where he’s the head of security, athletic director, football coach and boys track coach. And the Eagles have risen in the Public League pecking order.

Since the start of the 2015 season, Clark is 38-24 and has been in the IHSA playoff field every year but one (not including this spring, when the playoffs were canceled because of the pandemic).

But the Eagles didn’t have an IHSA postseason win until last week, losing big in recent seasons to Spring Valley Hall (54-8) and St,. Francis (45-0).

“The stigma is, ‘City kids can’t play with suburban teams, Catholic teams, they’re not disciplined,’” Simmons said.

That’s why the win over Elmwood-Brimfield was such a game-changer for the Eagles.

“It felt good,” junior running back Willie Taylor said. “We’ve all been working hard, trying to keep going, trying to ... make history. The West Side [doesn’t] get as much attention.”

Indeed, the balance of power in CPS has definitely tilted toward South Side powers like Phillips, Morgan Park, Simeon and Kenwood. The one West Side team to get on the statewide radar was Raby, which reached the Class 4A semifinals in 2017.

Simmons hoped Raby’s playoff run would help uplift other West Side programs, but so far that hasn’t really happened.

“We need six, seven schools to come up,” he said.

Clark is doing what it can, following a simple formula. The Eagles don’t play their linemen both ways, which enables them to wear down opponents in the second half. And their offense is a steady diet of run plays with a variety of backs.

That comes in handy when injuries happen. Quadrell Hill, who ran for 740 yards in the first six weeks, is working his way back from an ankle injury and four-year starter Yafae Cotton is out with a dislocated elbow.

That has given Taylor more chances to carry the ball and he’s made the most of them.

“He’s got a motor,” Simmons said of Taylor, who also plays linebacker and on special teams.

“We’ve got the mind-set, we can’t give up,” Taylor said.

They haven’t, and now they’re on a historic run.

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