Ron Muhitch is keeping the Friday night lights on at Wheaton Warrenville South's Red Grange Field this fall.
With a twist.
Muhitch, the Tigers' veteran coach, is frustrated like many coaches over Illinois' resistance to play football games this fall. So he's practicing Friday nights. WW South players were just fitted for helmets this month, and put on shoulder pads for the first time last week.
"We're trying to be fun with the kids. It's actually been good, we call it Friday night practices," Muhitch said. "It's at least given the kids a good feel on a Friday night."
The Tigers are making the best of a disjointed offseason. Muhitch called this ironically probably the best summer camp they've had. WW South went 15 days in a row in July, Mondays-Saturdays, and provided the kids an introduction to the playbook. The biggest loss was a consistent lifting program, but WW South encouraged and provided private opportunities of campus. Coaching-wise the Tigers have done virtual learning with installs.
"We've adapted," Muhitch said. "We've learned how to practice twice a week this fall. It seems like we've started and stopped several times, which is frustrating. We're trying to bring a little bit of contact in the game, which is where it's really behind. The kids are hungry, obviously, being so restricted during the spring and summer. They're anxious to get involved and get going."
Through all the uncertainty and negative energy of COVID-19 restrictions, the enthusiasm is clearly there for football in Wheaton. Program-wide the numbers are strong, with close to 140 kids total, 55 at the varsity level.
"You could have lost those kids a long time ago," Muhitch said. "It's a good testimony to what's going on with the kids."
Indeed, there's a lot of good going on in Wheaton.
The Tigers have made back-to-back quarterfinal appearances, returning the program to its place among the state's elite teams. WW South returns a talented quarterback in senior Parker Brown to lead a dynamic passing game, and eight of 11 starters on defense.
"I feel we have some talent," Muhitch said.
Head coach: Ron Muhitch
Last year’s record: 8-4 (Class 7A quarterfinal loss to Rolling Meadows)
Can a young offensive line come together?
Muhitch is pleased with the development of his offensive line – but at this point it is the Tigers' weakness purely based on experience. Of the five starters, three to four should be juniors.
Senior tackle Nick Walker and junior tackle Max Jablonski, a big guy at 6-foot-3 and 295 pounds, are the two returning starters. Matt Paver is a junior center, Brian Gomez a senior center and juniors Louie Bellocchio and Michael Amen will play a lot. Senior three-technique nose guard Connor Kelty is one of six players that WW South is preparing for two-way play.
Inside linebackers were a weakness, but Muhitch likes DJ Tryba as a guy to replace Michael Rogers at weakside, with Max Draus and Colin Weniger kids competing for spots.
Players to Watch
Muhitch makes a rather lofty comparison when citing the development of Brown, going into his second year as WW South's starting quarterback.
"It almost looks like 2010 with Riley [O'Toole]," said Muhitch, citing the former Tigers' All-Stater that went on to play collegiately at Illinois.
"The development of Parker Brown over the spring and summer, he's got bigger and stronger and more athletic. He is kind of our sleeper that has had the most improvement which has catapulted the passing game."
Senior receiver and Grand Valley State recruit Kaleb Clousing, like Brown, is a returning all-conference player in a winning combination, junior tight end Tyler Fawcett has got bigger and stronger and junior Brandon Bell is a guy that Muhitch heard rave reviews about it last year at the sophomore level.
"Those three kids fit a nice balance with the vertical game that will be tough on defenses," Muhitch said. "Most of the times teams have one good corner. They better have two good corners against us with these dynamite receivers."
Senior Jaylen Brown will get time at tight end, and is also back at at outside linebacker flanking fellow two-year starter Tommy Barnett.
On the defensive side the line is the feature, with Kelty and Nino Smit inside and Brown and Micah Roberts moving up to an end. In WW South's secondary probably the biggest improvement in athleticism is from senior Ryan Frank, a kid that started every game last year for the Tigers at free safety.
"He has just picked up his talent and his knowledge of the game and is fast," Muhitch said. "He's a baseball kid finding out more about his talent."
Muhitch is also high on his two cornerbacks, 6-foot-4 Max Wilson and Danny Healy, with twins Conor and Patrick Cunningham expected to fill in behind.
Newcomers You Need to Know
Senior running back Eddie Robinson, ineligible last year, is a tremendous talent that Muhitch anticipates adding another dimension to the offense.
"He's a speed kid out of the backfield, elusive, a great pass receiver out of the backfield," Muhitch said. "I think that dimension makes us more multiple."
The Tigers graduated a big dimension with record-breaking kicker/punter Jack Olsen moving on to Michigan State, which opened up an opportunity for Smit to expand his role on the team.
Smit is a kid from the Netherlands that's played soccer most of his life, and Muhitch said "just got big."
"The first time I saw him was junior year, he played defense, he's a lineman and he has a very live foot," Muhitch said. "I encouraged him over the summer, with Olsen graduating, if he wants to be that next guy, all the different parts are there, and he did it. He's a student of the game. He's so new that everything is fresh to him. He's going to be a great defensive player, an offensive lineman and probably handle most of our kicking duties. I'm happy with him."
2021 Schedule Analysis
With a seven-game schedule slated for spring 2021, Muhitch anticipates playing the full DuKane Conference slate. That will be no picnic, with 2019 playoff opponents Batavia, Glenbard North and St. Charles East on tap, along with 2018 Class 7A runner-up St. Charles North. WW South last year finished 4-3 in the DuKane.
The Tigers, should they stick to the fall schedule, would open with the North Stars in St. Charles.
WW South, after a tough three-year stretch from 2015-2017, has been rejuvenated the past two seasons. With what appears to be a dynamic passing game and plenty of experience on the defensive side, the Tigers look like a team best-positioned to give Batavia a run for its money in the DuKane, and a factor come playoff time.
"Our kids have done everything from a safety standpoint that the state and IHSA have asked them to do – we have worn masks, not had contact, did everything in a teaching format," Muhitch said. "The kids are ready to go now."