Features | Friday Night Drive

Crystal Lake Central ups the intensity under first-year coach Dirk Stanger

Crystal Lake Central head coach Dirk Stanger during a 7 on 7 football practice held on Thursday, July 21, 2022 at Crystal Lake Central High School. Ryan Rayburn for Shaw Local

Dirk Stanger has brought the intensity to Crystal Lake Central this summer.

The first-year head coach expects his players to bring the energy into everything that they do, and the Tigers have responded with energy the team hasn’t seen for a while.

“It’s been amazing,” junior George Dimopoulos said. “Last year, the energy was all right, but it was nothing compared to this year.”

Stanger is leading his first summer practices as head coach after the retirement of former coach Jon McLaughlin, who led Central for 13 seasons in two stints as head coach. Stanger served as McLaughlin’s offensive coordinator the past six seasons.

Central qualified for the Class 6A quarterfinals for the first time last fall since 2012, where it lost to state champion Cary-Grove. The Tigers ended the year 8-4.

Promoting Stanger to the head position has made the transition for the Tigers much easier. The team knows how Stanger likes to operate, and the Tigers have brought the accountability and intensity their coaching staff has required this offseason.

“It’s a different vibe with the kids,” Stanger said. “They’ve responded really well. They’ve been accountable to each other, which is huge. You’re going to have success as a team when it’s a player-led team.”

The Tigers will have a new backfield this season with new faces at quarterback and running back. Junior Jason Penza will take over after Northwest Herald All-Area first-team quarterback Colton Madura graduated. Penza played in three games and started twice at quarterback and earned All-Area honorable mention for his play at quarterback, wide receiver and defensive back.

Crystal Lake Central wide receiver George Dimopoulos, left, and Tommy McNeil fist bump during a 7 on 7 football practice held on Thursday, July 21, 2022 at Crystal Lake Central High School. Ryan Rayburn for Shaw Local

Dimopoulos will lead a wide receivers group that Stanger said could feature seven or eight players, while Vince Honer and Rene Gaunaurd will split time at running back in an offense that is working to put things together to complement a strong defense.

“The chemistry is amazing, and I think we’re going to be dangerous this year,” Dimopoulos said.

The Tigers will need to replace notable talent from last season’s defense. All-Area second-team linebackers Dillon Carlson and Will Martin and honorable mention linebackers Nico Acevedo and Braydon Gibour all graduated.

Stanger still was evaluating players at different positions at a 7-on-7 that the Tigers hosted July 21. The communication on the defensive end has gotten better over the summer, Stanger said, but he still wants to see improvements before the season begins.

“It’s been a lot like a rollercoaster, a lot of ups and downs,” Stanger said. “We need to be a more consistent team on both sides of the ball.”

Central starts the season Aug. 26 against Huntley, a date the Tigers can’t wait for after a summer of hitting only each other.

“After a while you get tired of working out, speed and agility, out here doing drill work,” Stanger said. “Let’s go.”