HUNTLEY – In all likelihood, no area football team was happier to move on from 2021 than Huntley.
After years of battling it out with usual Fox Valley Conference front-runners Cary-Grove and Prairie Ridge for the top spot, the Red Raiders struggled to a 3-6 record and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
“I think of last year as more of a blip on the radar,” Huntley coach Mike Naymola said. “Maybe a rude awakening in a sense. As a program, we’ve done enough good things over the last 10 years to understand that was more of a fluke than anything.”
Naymola, a Raiders assistant coach for 10 seasons, takes over as head coach after Matt Zimolzak stepped down. Huntley cannot wait to prove its new coach right and return to the postseason.
The Red Raiders took advantage of their field house Monday, the first day of fall sports practices for IHSA schools. With heavy rain and thunderstorms in the area, the team moved indoors to drier surroundings and a more productive atmosphere.
“It was a year that we don’t understand specifically what went wrong, but we know we have to leave it in the past and move through,” quarterback Sam Deligio said. “We’ve come a long way since then. It helped us grow to what we are now.
“I see a very good season for this team. We’ve improved so much from last season, there’s a lot of guys coming back. We learned from it and we keep growing. We’re really setting a new culture for 2023 with these seniors.”
Huntley was a solid defensive team, allowing the second-fewest points in the FVC (215) to Cary-Grove, which allowed 121 in the regular season. But the Raiders’ offense had its problems. Huntley returns Deligio at quarterback, will look at running backs Haiden Janke and Zach Rios, along with a variety of receivers.
Tackles Luke Griskey (6-foot-5, 260 pounds) and Eric Bower (6-6, 270) lead a line that Naymola is excited about.
“We’re going to be something special. Obviously, last year going 3-6 was one of our worst years in program history,” said Griskey, who is committed to the Air Force Academy. “This year I think we’ll be really good. The culture of the team has shifted, especially with ‘Naymo’ as the new head coach. He has changed everything.”
Naymola, who was an offensive assistant, said the staff wants to play faster on offense.
“Offensively, we want them thinking less and playing more,” Naymola said. “By doing that, we simplified some stuff formation-wise, trying to put people in better positions where they can succeed for us. We want to go fast and go at people, wear them down a little and use tempo to our advantage a little bit.”
The Raiders feel a tighter bond heading into the season will be beneficial.
“I’ve grown up playing with these guys my whole life, from Mustangs in first grade, we’re so tight I think that’s a difference-maker this year, we’re so tight as a team,” middle linebacker Joey Arvidson said. “The past is in the past, a good head of steam, we’re all confident.”
Arvidson, Dashaun Manning (who moves from defensive back to middle linebacker) and defensive lineman Ben Wiley return to lead the defense.
“Last year was a rough year,” Manning said. “I feel like we’ve patched those holes we needed to patch. This year will be way much better year than last year. We’re more connected. We had a bonding camp where we went against higher teams and that brought us closer.”
Huntley traveled to a 7-on-7 camp this summer in Brownsburg, Indiana, where former Huntley coach John Hart now is coaching. The Raiders saw some tough competition but also had some quality time together.
“We just have to play for each other,” Deligio said. “Last year it was a little different. This year we love each other so much, we want to fight for one another. The dudes next to us, we want to fight for them, not just for ourselves.”