By Mark Harrington
When 18 players return for another high school football season, the dream of going deeper into the state playoffs looms large despite not having played a game yet.
But that is exactly where defending unbeaten Metro Suburban Red Conference champions Elgin St. Edward finds itself for the August 30th home opener against Bremen (Midlothian, IL). After that, the Green Wave will be tested with four playoff teams from last year.
Valuable experience was gained on the football field a year ago as 11 sophomores started and learned how to sustain injuries and then resurging after losing its first three games to win five of the next six. The learning curve is smaller this time around.
“Last year we were just happy to be in the fight,” said head coach Mike Rolando, “and play close games early on. This year the expectation is a little different; we want to come into those first couple games and look at them as playoff type games. We’ve got to look like a mid-season football team.”
But the question is how will the Green Wave achieve those goals.
“We’ve got to hit the ground running, a lot of returning starters that know the system and know our terminology. We want to look crisp. We practiced all summer and used our 25 days; we’ve been doing a lot of seven on sevens. I think we are ahead of last year.”
The 14-year head coach said that “ahead of last year” translates into player knowledge of the playbook and terminology, knowing the routes and kids knowing each other.
“Last year, being so young, they hadn’t played together,” said Rolando. “They got a chance to make the playoffs and see what that was like.”
Despite a lack of size and sheer numbers, St. Ed compensates.
“We’re going to be undersized all the time,” said Rolando, adding the compensation relies on toughness. “Physically...mentally tough. What they lack in size, they make up for in heart and desire to not let each other down. They put the work in. They work hard. They never give up.”
As for those tougher teams on the schedule, Rolando knows his team’s fight.
“Whether a team outmanned us physically, they know they’re going to get our best effort every time. They know they’ve played a football game.”
Last autumn, Rolando admits that the Green Wave snuck up people last year.
“We were fortunate to get away with wins at Elmwood Park and Chicago Christian. Those were teams on paper that were physically probably better than us. We managed to get out in front of them and they couldn’t quite take the lead at the end,” reflected Rolando.
On Chicago Christian, Elmwood Park and Ridgewood this season:
“I don’t think we are going to be overlooked by any team,” he said. “ It’s always a challenge to repeat. Every game we’ll get the opposition’s best game until someone dethrones us.”
But the strength of the offense and defense has encouraged Rolando.
“Every O lineman is a returning starter. Andy Cielak, Luke Sauceda, Aidan Pomeroy, Luke Breier, and Owen Gill all return, and there are others competing for those spots and time on the line as well. We’ve got competition there, a little more depth and experience on the line. On defense, probably our athleticism, we’ve got enough athletes to where we can rotate kids in and get them off the field (for a rest). As long as we keep everyone healthy.”
Quarterback Anthony Holte returns, who likes to hook up with Zeke Rolando. Joe Sacco, Anthony Kirkwood, James Brisco, and Luke Breier are back after gaining valuable playing time a year ago. Kirkwood is moving from defensive back to outside linebacker, and on offense being a slot receiver or fullback combo. Both Brier and him play bigger than their size. Sacco, Briscoe and Kirkwood will form the running game.
“This year we’ll be able to distribute the ball all around, use several different weapons, running the ball and throwing the ball,” said Rolando. “We should have a really well balanced football team that is hard to defend.”
More than a football team, X’s and O’s, and wins or losses, the players talk about this year’s squad, when asked about one word to describe this season and group.
Zeke Rolando: family, bonding, putting the work in for each other.
Anthony Holte: heart.
Luke Brier: brotherhood. We’re a family here and will do whatever it takes to win this year.
Anthony Kirkwood: to describe the team, hitters. We’ve all improved and we want to prove ourselves again. Just get out there and be the strongest and toughest team out there.
Zeke Rolando says his game has improved in quickness, working the routes and catching. “It’s all about reps. A lot of teams are going to be bigger than us and faster than us, so we have to mentally strong.”
Kirkwood has benefited from practicing in his route running abilities and not just concentrating on his defense. But he prides himself in physicality and strength.
Holte has focused on footwork in the off-season and has seen improvements in his three-step drop while also working out every day in the weight room. The QB said he is
not afraid of scrambling and throwing passes out of the pocket.
Brier’s game is on the upswing. “Definitely better on my footwork, overall strength and speed increase.”
Spacing on the line will be filled in by 6-foot-5, 260 pound Tristan Merlin. That line is where SE Head Coach Rolando sees as a plus, hinting that much of the O line should be over 200 pounds each. “For a small school like us, that’s pretty good size.”
Holte favors the line for protection.
“A lot better than last year” said Holte. “I think we have more seniors, so they want it more. They’re giving it their all.”
Last season, St. Edward won the Metro Suburban Red Conference going undefeated (5-0), losing to Urban Prep Bronzeville in the Class 4A playoffs first round by just 10 points. Off to a 16-0 deficit, St. Ed’s outpointed Urban Prep-B 14-8 in the next three quarters.
That makes this team hungry. So what can fans expect this year?
“Competitive, hard-nosed football,” Rolando believes. “Our kids are going to give everything they have every week to come out and play as a team and do their best to win each game. Classy, respectful football, an old school brand of football.”
During the pre-season leading up to the first battle, Rolando discussed the importance of timing and synchronization with all 11 players on the field.
“The handoffs, the footwork, the play action passes,” he said. “The quarterback and the receivers. We’ve got a returning quarterback in Anthony Holte and several good receivers back that have upped their game over the summer. Liam Pomeroy, Joe Sacco, and Clem McCullough, have all improved and will be go-to guys. Those guys timing up their pass routes is critical.”
On the nine-game schedule, only five contests in the Metro Red Conference claims the title. The Green Wave also meets three-time defending state champions Immaculate Conception, which has a 40-1 record the last three years, in week seven. Rolando expects a closer game this time around.
In those nine games beside IC, the Green Wave will battle playoff qualifiers Chicago Christian and Elmwood Park, both went two games into the 2A playoffs, and Wheaton Academy.
Ridgewood missed the playoffs for the first time in three seasons in 2018.
“We just need to work on getting better each week and taking one week at a time,” Coach Rolando said. “Never looking past an opponent. It’s a long season. I think this team has to one-up those goals from last year (conference title and playoff appearance) and set their goals a little higher.”
Rolando enters this season as the winningest coach in school history at 60-74. Only twice has the Green Wave advanced into the second round (2010 & 2014) in the school record books.