JOHNSBURG – For weeks, the numbers had been dwindling, slowly stripping the Johnsburg sophomore football team of any semblance of a depth chart.
Three players went down with season-ending injuries. Another three were forced out with post-concussion syndrome. But Monday, when even more players skipped practice, taking the roster down to 11 players, Skyhawks varsity coach Mike Maloney knew he couldn’t make matters worse.
But when Maloney decided Tuesday to cancel tonight’s sophomore game against McHenry, he opened opportunity’s door for five players who saw an unexpected break in their Friday night routine turn into a chance to make their varsity debut.
None are certain how long their call-up will last as Maloney will decide next week whether the sophomores have enough personnel to play against Crystal Lake Central. But for now, the Skyhawks’ five newest varsity players will make the most of the chance.
“This is going to be an amazing opportunity to get some experience for the next two years,” offensive and defensive lineman David Mueller said. “I’m definitely nervous, but when I do go in, I’m going to give it my all.”
Since bringing the five players up, Maloney has gone through his normal game week preparations for tonight’s Fox Valley Conference crossover game. He hasn’t worried about overwhelming the sophomores, who, along with the freshmen spent a few practice segments with the varsity, giving Maloney a chance to teach younger players what he expects.
Dillon Tinsley, who plays fullback and linebacker, fully expects to be back with his sophomore teammates next week. But tonight, he’ll play for those who can’t, knowing many like him wish they could be on the field despite how difficult this season – on and off the field – has been to deal with.
“The entire (sophomore) team, I don’t think we ever lost hope – the attitude has always been there,” Tinsley said. “It’s just been harder and harder and the numbers keep going down and people keep dropping off with injuries, but I feel like it’s always been positive.
“It’s always been, ‘There’s always next week.”
As difficult as the circumstances surrounding their promotion has been to deal with, the five sophomores will try to treat tonight’s Friday night call-up just like any other game. Ericson Hoffman, who plays center and offensive line, said he knows Maloney wouldn’t put players in a situation they couldn’t handle although there have been a few moments this week that haven’t always been easy.
“It’s difficult at the beginning, but then you realize it’s not that different than playing sophomore,” Hoffman said. “You get used to it and you hang on and you just do the best you can.”
Overcoming adversity has been a requirement for Johnsburg’s sophomores, who, like their new varsity teammates, are winless this season. Last Friday, they lost, 64-0, to Hampshire. Yet they have done their best to remain positive and to keep playing hard – something each of them has committed to do if they are inserted into the Skyhawks’ lineup tonight.
With two weeks remaining in the regular season after tonight, Maloney has a decision to make whether the sophomores have enough to move forward. But the five sophomores – including halfback and free safety Jacob Blount – won’t allow an uncertain future to get in the way of the chance they have to impress Maloney.
“This is my chance to shine,” Blount said. “I’m not intimidated to play against seniors because we do it every day in practice. Now, it’s just different people.”
Maloney said most of the players were called up to provide special teams assistance and to provide depth to positions where the Skyhawks are thin at the varsity level. The sophomores know they’ve been chosen for a reason and look forward to their varsity debut.
Still, as hard as they’ll try to treat the game like any other they’ve played in this season, they can’t help but know that the atmosphere they’ll compete in is just a little different.
“For this week, they need players and I’m here to help, whatever they ask me to do,” said Haden Franzen, who will see time at wide receiver with the varsity after playing tight end and defensive end for the sophomore team. “But hopefully, next week, there is a sophomore team because I like being with my family.”