By Matt Nestor
Prep Sports Reporter
Football season starts Friday night, Aug. 29, and there is a great slate of games across the stateline area. Rockford Auburn travels to Rockford Boylan, and Belvidere and Belvidere North play in a rivalry game.
But there is more than NIC-10 in the area, especially in Rockford. Rockford Lutheran and Christian Life are both coming off historic seasons, and both want to build on the success they have had.
“It’s a different mentality,” Christian Life Head Coach Tony Ambrogio said of entering the season with expectations. “We’ve always been the hunter, not the hunted. We’re trying to earn respect for ourselves and show we’re not a flash in the pan.”
The Eagles lost their first game of the year against Ottawa-Marquette in their closest game of the year. After that, Christian Life won their next eight games in the NUIC and entered the playoffs with a home game.
They ultimately lost that game against traditional power Freeport Aquin. But other than a few special teams turnovers, the Eagles hung tight in that game and appear poised to break out even further this season.
They return Brady Pond at quarterback, who is back for his third year as the starter. He does so many things for the offense, throwing and running the ball, and coach Ambrogio is excited to spend his time expanding the playbook rather than teaching fundamentals.
The Eagles start the season with the same team they did last year. Ambrogio said that game has been their focus for the entire offseason.
“Ottawa-Marquette’s won 18-straight games in the conference,” he said. “First and foremost, we have to take care of them right out of the gate. We’re 8-0 right now in the conference, so someone’s streak is going to end.”
Ambrogio also said Chicago Hope, a playoff team last year, returns key starters. He also said that Aldon-Hebron and Mooseheart could also pose a stiff challenge in the conference.
Lutheran is used to being hunted. They had their second-straight strong season that ended with a deep run in the playoffs.
The Crusaders will enter the season among the favorites in the Big Northern West Conference, but Head Coach Bruce Bazsali is quick to point out that they are not the only good team in the conference.
“(Stillman Valley) being awesome, of course,” he said. “But Byron and Oregon and Winnebago all being there. I think Mendota is going to be real good this year.”
The Big Northern West may be the best conference in the state. Stillman Valley won a state title last year, defeating Winnebago deep in the playoffs to make it to the state title — the same Winnebago team they lost to at the end of the regular season. And Lutheran jumped up in class and still won a couple of games before ultimately falling.
For Lutheran, the game begins and ends with running back James Robinson. The running back is a threat to score every time he touches the ball, regardless of the position on the field. Coaches have to fight the urge to give him the ball on every play, but they feel the team is deep enough to get others involved, in addition to not beating up their star player.
“We don’t try to force-feed him the ball,” Bazsali said. “Some people say I should give him the ball more, but I don’t believe that — it will beat him up.”
One way they hope to help out the team is by moving Robinson around. Whether they use him some at receiver, in the slot, lined up in a different position in the backfield, he is a player that the defense keys on and will always make sure they find him on the field.
“We’re going to move him around a bit more this year,” Bazsali said. “He’s played more than just the tailback spot this year.”
It is a big junior year for Robinson. He is on track to do a lot of special things at the school. And while Bazsali does not want to run him into the ground, he is willing to do what he needs to try to help him reach his goals.
“He’s on pace to be the all-time rushing leader in the state, he’s on track for that,” he said. “And I would like to see him do that.”
Christian Life will travel to Ottawa-Marquette for their season-opener Friday, Aug. 29. Rockford Lutheran will open up with a tough non-conference game at home against Quincy Notre Dame, also Friday.
From the Aug. 27-Sept. 2, 2014, issue