CRYSTAL LAKE – Crystal Lake South ended practice Thursday with live 1-on-1s, something the Gators haven’t done much of since Rob Fontana took over the program in 2017.
Fontana has mostly used thud drills during the summer, which involve initiation of contact at full speed but no take-downs to the ground.
Entering his sixth season, the Gators coach is giving his players a little more leeway.
“We’re trying to really put in more physicality this summer,” Fontana said. “It’s hard to say as a head coach, but I’m not a fan of going live every day. I’m not a fan of taking guys down to the ground and having that wear and tear. Does that show up on Friday nights? Sometimes, but I’ve kind of taken those handcuffs off a bit. Some coaches will go live every day, and to each their own, but we’re still doing a lot more than we ever have.”
Players have appreciated the switch, along with the smack talk that comes with it.
“That’s the reason you’re playing, hitting people and having fun with it,” said senior starter Nate Compere, a four-year starter on the offensive line who committed to NCAA Division I Lindenwood (Missouri) in June. “It’s exciting to go out there and hit people, especially your buddies. You hit someone hard, you’ve got something to say, it’s really a lot of fun.”
Compere felt the Gators lacked toughness last season, which showed at times on the field.
“If we can work on our physicality, be the bigger people, hit harder and be more confident when we’re going to tackle, it’s going to be a huge step for us,” Compere said.
South went 5-5 last year and beat Huntley, 28-14, in Week 9 to make the playoffs for a third consecutive season. The Gators have finished with exactly five losses in every year since 2018, including the COVID-19-shortened 2021 spring season. Their season ended with a Class 6A first-round exit against Harlem.
South returns about 10 starters on offense and six on defense.
Among the top returners are Compere, running back Nate Van Witzenburg, lineman Andy Burburija and receivers’ Michael Prokos and Cooper LePage. Brady Schroeder and Caden Casimino, a transfer from Crystal Lake Central, are competing at quarterback and will replace three-year starter Justin Kowalak, who led the Northwest Herald area with 2,276 yards, 20 touchdowns and five interceptions.
On defense, the Gators return linebacker Kyle Kuffel, who was one of the team’s leading tacklers, along with defensive backs’ Colton Hess, Mike Knowles and Carter Alvarado. Some also will play on offense.
The rest of the pieces are still coming together.
“Everyone’s really working really hard to figure out where they fit in best and where they help us most,” Fontana said. “It’s been a really productive camp. I would say a lot more amped up than in past years.”
Fontana said the offense, which averaged 34 points a game last year, will do a lot of the same things. Led by Kowalak, the Gators had one of the area’s strongest air attacks. Prokos broke multiple single-season school records and was second in the area with 54 catches and 935 yards, scoring four touchdowns.
Van Witzenburg was among the area leaders with 1,182 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns, also finishing with 30 catches for 370 yards and three scores. LePage grabbed 26 catches for 446 yards and seven touchdowns.
South isn’t afraid to push the pace.
“It’s kind of what we do now, we like to try and push the tempo,” Fontana said. “We like to spread people out. We want to be able to run the football, take some time off the clock, but we want to be able to play fast and spread the wealth to our receivers. Those guys work hard to try and get their couple of catches every game.”
The Gators felt like they should have had a few more wins last year. Two of their losses to Jacobs, 42-38, and Crystal Lake Central, 42-37, came down to the final possession. In an opening-season loss to Jacobs, South led the entire way until the Golden Eagles scored with 7.8 seconds left.
Burburija, who had 43 tackles and four sacks his sophomore season, said finishing has been a big point of emphasis this summer.
“I feel like once we got to halftime, our momentum shifted,” Burburija said. “We have to have all 11 to the ball every down, every play, that’s the main pursuit. Everybody’s got to be able to tackle and wrap up to the ground, and we’re working on that now.”
Source: The Daily Chronicle