McHenry's Brody Hallin runs the ball against Crystal Lake Central last season in Crystal Lake.
McHenry's Brody Hallin runs the ball against Crystal Lake Central last season in Crystal Lake. — Tony Gadomski for Shaw Media

McHenry football coach Jon Niemic and his staff have every reason to feel positive about the upcoming season.

Nine players return who started on defense, including the whole secondary and linebacker Paul Zunkel, a third-year starter and the Warriors’ “coach on the field,” as Niemic puts it.

McHenry returns three starting offensive linemen, its top running back and top two receivers on offense. Plus, the seniors and juniors were 8-1 on the freshman-sophomore A level two years ago.

“Our No. 1 goal is to make the playoffs every year,” Niemic said. “Anything short of the playoffs this year, we would be a little bit disappointed. We have the pieces on defense. If we get a little more gel in the offense, we’ll be right there in the playoff mix.”

The Warriors finished 3-6 after staring 3-1 last year. The Fox Valley Conference always presents a tough path to the playoffs, but McHenry’s hopes are realistic. It would be the Warriors’ second playoff trip in 13 seasons.

“(The freshman-sophomore success in 2018) will help us tremendously,” Zunkel said. “Some of those guys were on varsity last year. They’re working hard in the weight room, posting stuff on Twitter, posting stuff on our group chats. Our saying this year is ‘Always earned, never given.’ We just keep working hard every day.”

Head coach: Jon Niemic (third season).

Last year’s record: 3-6.

Biggest Question

Can the Warriors generate more offense this season?

They scored 43 points total in their final five games of 2019. Two of those came against state powers Prairie Ridge (the Class 6A state runner-up) and Cary-Grove.

McHenry needed more than the 38 it scored in the last three games against Crystal Lake South, Crystal Lake Central and Hampshire.

“Our offense struggled mightily,” Niemic said. “Our defense was the strength of our team all season. We kind of struggled toward the end of the year and weren’t happy with the way we ended. We’ve been using that as motivation throughout the offseason.”

Running back Brody Hallin (520 yards, five touchdowns) led the Warriors in rushing. Adam Benton (13 catches) and Matt Gallimore (10) were the leading receivers, and linemen Luke Zunkel, Zach Babinscak and Ryan Koczor all return as starters.

Niemic is looking at a three-way quarterback competition this summer between senior Logan Lucas, junior Andrew Hoffman and sophomore Dom Caruso, who led the freshman-sophomore A team to a 6-2 record last year.

Players to Watch

The Zunkel brothers are tough, smart players, the sons of former head coach Nat Zunkel.

“Paul is a third-year starter and that’s huge,” Niemic said. “He knows exactly where everybody’s supposed to be.”

Kyle Kaempf and Dom Lorenzo return at the safety spots, while Lucas and Brian Jordan are back at cornerbacks. Ayden Watson (240 pounds) and Tyler Groves (270) return on the defensive line.

“We’re pretty excited about the guys we have back (on defense),” Niemic said.

Newcomers You Need to Know

It will start with whoever wins the quarterback job. Lucas is a senior who started on defense, Hoffman competed with graduate Chris Zieba for the job last year and Caruso had the success with the freshman-sophomore team.

Running back Matteo Acosta is not new to McHenry’s varsity, but could be a new starter. He transferred from Richmond-Burton last year and could see more time in the backfield, with Hallin moving to a slot position where he could both run the ball and catch it.

2020 Schedule Analysis

The schedule is the same as last season and the Warriors would be advised to start 3-1 again to have a shot at reaching the postseason.

The opener against Huntley will be a tall order, the Red Raiders may be the Fox Valley Conference favorite. The next dates with Dundee-Crown, Burlington Central and Jacobs will be critical to reach a good spot before facing what Niemic called “the gauntlet” that is Prairie Ridge and Cary-Grove.

After that will come Crystal Lake South, Crystal Lake Central and Hampshire, all games McHenry lost last season, with South and Central making the Class 6A playoffs.

Early Take

McHenry looks capable of making its second trip to the playoffs in the last 13 years. The Warriors have experience, past success on lower levels, and motivation to make it back. The key games appear to be those that could go either way, like Jacobs, South and Central.

“With the talent we have (on defense) and the bond we have, we can go toe-to-toe with some of those teams,” Zunkel said. “We can get back to the playoffs. We have to work together as a program and a team.”