Football: Highland Park seeking return to playoff action
Highland Park's Rob Heroux works the center of the defense during preseason drills on Saturday at Wolters Field. | Joe Cyganowski~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 24, 2012 6:50AM
Was last year an aberration for the Highland Park High School football team?
After eight straight seasons of reaching the IHSA football playoffs, the Giants didn’t qualify in 2011 despite posting a 5-4 record. Highland Park appears to have plenty of talent to start a new playoff-making streak, but inexperience and lack of overall depth are concerns.
“We might not have a lot of experience performing in games (with two returning starters on offense and defense), but we have a lot of guys who can run to the football, and we have good skill-position players,” said Highland Park coach Hal Chiodo.
Less than half of the roster features seniors, as the Giants were hit hard by graduation. But the incoming juniors are coming off of a successful sophomore season (5-3-1).
“They are a very good group,” Chiodo said.
Yet any optimism must be tempered a bit, as the Giants’ roster has only 40 players, which will lead to a number of two-way performers. Staying healthy will be critical regarding HP’s chances of returning to the playoffs.
Glenbrook North and its vaunted running game appear to be the team to beat, with Highland Park and Deerfield in hot pursuit.
Moving the sticks: “We can throw the ball pretty well — we can run the ball pretty well,” Chiodo said. “It all depends on how teams play us, and then we’ll adjust.”
The running game is in good hands, as HP features senior Andrew Sledd, one of the top backs in the area. The quick and powerful halfback scored 16 touchdowns in a three-game span last season — among his 22 in all — and rushed for nearly 900 yards during a season in which he didn’t start until Week 3. Sledd is also a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield, and can be dangerous on punt and kickoff returns as well.
“He can do everything for us,” Chiodo said.
Sledd was a little banged up over the summer, so backup Jarae Ward, a junior, will be counted on in the backfield.
When teams gang up on the Giants’ ground game, then Chiodo will turn to 6-foot-2, 185-pound strong-armed junior quarterback Tommy Sutker.
“Tommy gets a lot out of his abilities,” Chiodo said. “He puts a nice touch on the ball and sees the field well.”
Added Sutker: “With defenses locking in on Andrew, it makes it easier with a fake for the passing game. Our line is doing a great job (in practice) with blocking for the run or pass.”
The other returnee, senior Salvador Vergara (6-0, 230) anchors the offensive line from his guard position. He’ll be supported by senior center Rob Heroux, along with seniors Micah Silberstein and Beau Falcon, and junior tight end Jason Goldsmith. The line is quick, and will lead Sledd and Ward with speed to the outside.
Providing Sutker time to pass will enable the signal caller to find a bevy of quality receivers, including senior Sean Arrington, and juniors Jeremy Levin and Grant Paley. Chiodo raved about the size of his wideouts: Arrington at 6-2, and Levin (6-1).
Making the stops: Though Heroux and Goldsmith are the only two returnees on defense, they team up in the linebacking corps, providing leadership for the line up front and the defensive backs behind them.
“Everyone can fly to the ball on defense and really get after it,” said the 6-0, 195-pound Heroux.
The Giants may prove difficult to pass against, as they possess a solid secondary. That includes seniors Stan Echt and Arrington, along with juniors Paley and Ward, forming one of the quickest units in the Central Suburban League North.
The defensive line will again be undersized. Senior defensive tackle Matt Wilneff (5-11, 190) and junior defensive end Jacob Wiczer (5-10, 180) will be counted on to harass opposing quarterbacks.
Special forces: Junior kicker Josh Pollack displayed a strong leg last season, allowing the Giants to enjoy good field position on both sides of the ball.
“He’s worked very hard this summer, and we hope he’s going to emerge as one of the top junior kickers in the state,” Chiodo said.