Huntley football coach Matt Zimolzak got a nice surprise on his team's first official contact day of the fall.
"We had a 95% to 98% turnout," the fifth-year Red Raiders coach said. "To be honest, I was a little worried people wouldn't be showing up. But the kids are sick of this thing, they're ready to go."
Last week's contact days involved little contact because of COVID-19 restrictions, but it's clear that Zimolzak and the Raiders are itching for a football season. And why shouldn't they be?
Huntley is coming off a co-Fox Valley Conference championship (with Prairie Ridge) and will look to add onto six consecutive Class 8A postseason appearances, whenever the season starts.
Can the Raiders make it past the second round of the postseason for the first time since 2016?
"I think they’re going to be hungry," Zimolzak said. "They want to play ... they're excited to play. They want to go out and show what they can do and be physical doing it."
Head coach: Matt Zimolzak (fifth season)
Last year’s record: 9-2 (Class 8A second-round loss to Marist)
How far can Huntley go?
The Raiders have finished in the top 3 of the FVC standings in each one of Zimolzak's first four seasons – including last year's co-conference championship with eventual Class 6A runner-up Prairie Ridge.
But since moving from 7A to 8A, the Raiders have had a tough time making it deep into the playoffs.
Last year, Huntley played arguably one of its best games under Zimolzak in the 8A postseason, losing to perennial contender Marist, 14-7, in a second-round game. Marist went on score 41 points and beat Loyola Academy, which has won two state championships since 2015, in the quarterfinals, before losing to eventual state champion Lincoln-Way West, 24-7, in the semifinals.
That defensive battle against a high-talent Marist team gave the returning group of Raiders a lot of confidence for what lies ahead.
"We just realized that we can play with anybody," Zimolzak said. "A few years back, when you're playing against some of those Catholic League schools for the first time, you don't think you can play with those kids. And then we play Marist in a tough game, almost take it, and the kids know now, we can absolutely play with anybody."
In 2016, Zimolzak's first year, the 24th-seeded Raiders upset No. 9 Stevenson on the road. Huntley then beat Palatine in the second round, before losing to Loyola in the quarterfinals.
Zimolzak thinks playing in the FVC, which has produced three 6A state champions since 2016 (Prairie Ridge in 2016 and 2017, Cary-Grove in 2018), helps prepare the Raiders for whatever the always-difficult 8A postseason holds.
"The Fox Valley is a tremendous conference, produced numerous state champions, and 7A contenders," Zimolzak said. "I think it's putting the Fox Valley on the map as one of the best conferences in the state. We're a big part of that."
Players to Watch
Defensive tackle Brad Walker is a handful for opposing defenses, which often scheme away from the highly recruited 6-foot-1, 270-pound senior. Walker was the only junior on the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Class 8A All-State team last season. He had 28 tackles and four sacks for a Raiders defense that did not allow more than 14 points in any game.
"He's just a a commanding physical person," Zimolzak said. "You have to put two (defenders) on him. "Hes a fun guy. He's always smiling and having a good time. His attitude is contagious, and that’s what our defense thrives on."
Zimolzak is excited to see what quarterback Bruno Bosman can do in his second season leading the offense. Bosman completed 63.8% of his passes last year for 1,032 yards, nine touchdowns and seven interceptions and has one of his top receiving threats returning in Alex Denniston (22 catches, 295 yards, four touchdowns).
Bosman was fifth in the FVC in rushing with 914 yards and 17 touchdowns.
"He started off struggling, not sure of his reads, but throughout the season, he just got better and better," Zimolzak said. "He got to the point he could make his own calls, reads and everything. He's the leader at quarterback you want and need on a team. We're excited to have him back."
Zimolzak has high praise for senior Alex Janke, who will do a little bit of everything for Huntley.
"He'll play every down if we can have him," Zimolzak said. "He's the most athletic person we've had since (2018 Northwest Herald Athlete of the Year) Eric Mooney. He'll play linebacker, slot, running back, he'll return every kick. He'll do it all."
Newcomers You Need to Know
Sophomores Boston Bower and Ben Wiley could join Walker as starters on the defensive line, helping replace the losses of Matt Burba (Wisconsin Whitewater) and Conor Rice (Sioux Falls).
Wide receiver Christian Brown (6-0, 175) could play tight end for most teams, Zimolzak said, and will give Bosman a large target downfield. Wide receiver Carter Knutsen will play more in the slot.
2020 Schedule Analysis
A lot is still to be decided with the high school football season moved to the spring, but with 10 teams, the FVC is a closed conference, so it mostly depends on how long the regular season will be.
The schedule is the same as last season for the Raiders, including a tough stretch of back-to-back games in Weeks 3 and 4 against Prairie Ridge, last year's Class 6A runner-up, and Cary-Grove, a perennial 6A contender. Huntley swept the season series against the Wolves and Trojans a year ago, beating Prairie Ridge, 28-24, and C-G, 21-14. Those two games could decide who wins the FVC in 2020.
Huntley opens the season against McHenry, and then gets Jacobs, which beat the Raiders, 14-7, in one of the FVC's biggest surprise results last season. In Weeks 5 to 9, the Raiders end their schedule against Crystal Lake South, Crystal Lake Central, Hampshire, Burlington Central and Dundee-Crown.
Huntley won its final seven regular-season games last year.
The Raiders, who are 27-6 in conference play in Zimolzak's first four years, may be the favorite to win the FVC crown. Huntley will rely on a "fast swarming" defense and "business-like grind-it-out" approach on offense, Zimolzak said.
With top talent and leaders returning on both sides of the ball and the confidence of playing toe-to-toe with one of the perennial 8A heavyweights against Marist, the Raiders are eager to make bigger strides in 2020 and surprise some teams in the 8A field.