Johnsburg looks back to the 2021 football season with frustration at either not being able to hold leads or closing out tight games.
In two of the Skyhawks’ losses, they led in the first half. In two others, they fell to playoff teams by a combined total of four points.
“Mostly what we’ve taken is our drive and our anger from the end of last year and a group of us seniors are trying to drill that into these kids’ heads to want to win and succeed,” wide receiver-defensive back Ian Boal said. “Hopefully after them seeing what we did last season and it not ending how we wanted, this season we can turn it around and make it into the playoffs.”
The Skyhawks have several key parts returning from their 3-6 team. Although quarterback Luke Conroy graduated, running back Jake Metze and leading receivers Boal and Cade Piggott return. The line is led by 6-foot-6, 290-pound Jacob Welch, who has 12 NCAA Division I offers.
“Our big impact players are coming back, which is a difference,” Skyhawks coach Sam Lesniak said. “We’re going to have some pretty good team speed with a lot of our skill guys returning. We should be able to be pretty aggressive and fly around.”
The Skyhawks led against Marian Central in the opener, but had problems when several players experienced cramping in the second half. Johnsburg, which led 25-12 in the first half, lost 39-25.
Lesniak said the Skyhawks looked like a different team in the second half.
In Week 2, they played eventual Class 2A state champion Wilmington close for most of the game before falling 28-13.
Johnsburg came up just shy of Class 4A playoff team Plano, 27-26, in Week 5. In Week 7, the Skyhawks lost, 23-20, to Richmond-Burton, which was 12-1 and lost to 4A state champion Joliet Catholic in the playoffs semifinals.
“We couldn’t finish games. And then we figured out how to finish games,” Piggott said. “It shows us we’re capable of it. At the beginning of the year we knew we were better and we just weren’t winning.
“We finally realized that we were when we played Richmond. We knew we were that good. That’ll help us know not to think we’re not better than these teams.”
Johnsburg defeated Sandwich in Week 6, then beat Woodstock North and Harvard to finish the season. Those three teams combined for two wins, but the competitiveness against playoff teams was encouraging.
“Pretty much from our Week 5 game against Plano through the rest of the season, something changed, where practices were better,” Welch said. “Everyone was more connected, even though we were 0-5. We had nothing to lose, we just played all out, we had a ton of confidence.”
Braden Olson, a senior who missed time with a foot injury, gives the Skyhawks good size and speed at tight end and linebacker. He saw another change later in the season.
“We weren’t backing down,” Olson said. “All the talking we did last year slowed us down and we realized stop the talking and keep going and don’t back down from anybody. That’s the result we get. We almost beat one of our rivals (R-B).”
Metze ran for 549 yards and seven touchdowns and caught a team-high 50 passes for another 574 yards and six scores. Piggott caught 25 balls for 363 yards and Boal grabbed 23 for 309.
The Skyhawks will miss Conroy, who threw for more than 1,300 yards. Junior Ryan Larson and sophomore A.J. Bravieri are vying for the starting job.
Lesniak feels like the late-season success, even in close losses, can help the Skyhawks this season.
“It gave us some momentum,” Lesniak said. “It did a lot for the mentality of the guys coming back about the last five games we played really tough. We were right there with two losses out of the five.
“Last year was tough, we had so many injuries at the start of the year. Having more guys come out is huge, I think a big part of that was the momentum we had at the end of the year. It’s huge for the guys who are returning, feeling like where we are and where we can get to.”