Tuesday, August 27, 2013

I had a nice conversation...

...on Sunday with Dan O'Keefe, the head football coach at De La Salle. (That's him between two of his stars this year, Mikale Wilbon on the left and Jamarco Jones on the right.) Like any savvy coach, O'Keefe tried to lower my expectations for the season, but I could tell he has a very talented and committed squad this year.

O'Keefe, a 1990 graduate of Leo High School, played center and linebacker on the 11-2 team his senior year. After college at North Park, where he was captain of the Vikings, O'Keefe earned a master's degree in educational administration at Dominican University in River Forest (where my mom went for a year). The South Side native then coached for a short time in Florida, went back to Leo as head coach, and then on to Loyola Academy where he was an assistant before taking the helm of the Meteors in 2007.

De La Salle Institute, founded in 1889, is now a coed school of about 1,000 students, half of which I assume are boys. As a result, O'Keefe has a smaller pool of athletes with which to work and was quick to point out that depth and injuries are his biggest concern. Take last year for example. Before losing the Vanderbilt-bound running back Wilbon to an injury, the Meteors were 3-1. Afterward, De La Salle went 1-4 to finish the 2012 season 4-5.

(A similar situation took place a few years ago. After racking up a 9-3 record the previous season, De La Salle had high hopes for 2010. But after star quarterback Juwan Martin went down with an injury, the Meteors finished only 3-6.)

But if De La Salle can stay healthy, they just might be a dark horse in Class 6A. Besides Wilbon and Jones, who has committed to Ohio State, the Meteors will start seniors Will Zopp at running back and Shelby Spence at quarterback. Spence, in turn, can throw to either sophomore Tom Duddleston (who played quarterback on the freshman team and is also a stand-out in basketball and baseball) or junior Bryce Sutherland. (And while I couldn't get the cagey O'Keefe to admit it, don't be too surprised if the speedy Spence, who lost 15 pounds in the off-season, is also a threat to run with the ball.)

But, really, when you have a running back like Wilbon rushing behind linemen like Jones and Aaron Roberts (whom, I'm told, is being heavily recruited by Syracuse), why not just pound away at defenses all day? Wilbon averaged about 25 carries per game as a sophomore and could very well be the best player O'Keefe has coached since Cordero Gaston way back in 2007.

On defense, De La Salle returns eight starters from last year, including senior defensive end/linebacker Kyle Malan, who plays on offense as well. O'Keefe expects to have about two or three guys play both ways, although he concedes that number could climb as the season progresses with injuries.

I could tell that this year's senior class is a special one for O'Keefe. (Malan, along with Jones, Wilbon and Spence have been starters for three years.) He said they really have the qualities it takes to go deep in the playoffs. They sound like a really hard-working bunch, spending lots of time in the weight room and generally "taking care of business."

I'm looking forward to Saturday's game against Phillips in Soldier Field, although O'Keefe told me Jones will be sitting out due to an injury. (Darn!) That's okay, though, as I also have my eye on De La Salle's last two home games of the year, Loyola on October 11, and Fenwick the following week. Could be a great season for the Meteors!

P. S. O'Keefe reminded me of an interesting fact: The largest crowd to ever watch a high school football game at Soldier Field was an estimated 115,000 in the 1937 City Championship between Austin and his alma mater, Leo. Wow! While he doesn't expect this Saturday's game to be nearly as well attended, O'Keefe also mentioned that the Chicago Bears played in Wrigley Field the very next day in front of ... only 30,000 patrons!

Correction: In an earlier draft I wrote that Zopp, not Jones, was the other three-year starter. Also, I said that the Bears played in Soldier Field instead of Wrigley. (That last one was unforgivable; my first Bears game ever was in the Friendly Confines in 1967 when I saw Gale Sayers play.) My bad!

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