This is the year the impact of the new fitness/wellness facility at Evanston Township High School figured to show across the board in boys and girls sports alike.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, limiting access to that modern facility and strength guru Mark Feldner. But once the members of the ETHS football team could get back in the building and hit the weights again, they hit them — hard.
A bigger, stronger and experienced Wildkit football squad opens a shortened season on Friday at Central Suburban League South division foe Glenbrook North and will get their first chance to flex their new muscles.
With the season postponed from last fall until now, the Kits will play all 5 division foes and will add on a 6th game crossover against a to-be-determined foe from the CSL North. There won’t be an Illinois High School Association state playoff series this year. And that means even more of an emphasis on the conference race, as the Wildkits hope to rebound from a 3-6 season to challenge Maine South and New Trier for supremacy there.
Both teams have held the upper hand over ETHS — they haven’t beaten Maine South since 1999 – and that dominance has started up front when the Kits can’t match up physically.
This year they hope to be the biggest kids on the block, with 3 starters returning in the offensive line and gigantic (6-foot-5, 335-pounds) sophomore Gabriel Rosen added to that mix.
Head coach Mike Burzawa has always favored a downhill running attack and a unit led by Air Force Academy recruit Zach Myers (6-5, 280) and Josh Hartwell (6-1, 275), along with Connor Groff (6-2, 220), who is shifting outside to tight end, will provide the veteran presence to get the job done.
Other starters figure to be juniors David Sanchez (5-8, 230) and Sheldon Kinzer (5-10, 235) at the guard spots.
“We’ve struggled against Maine South and New Trier in the past because we couldn’t run the football, and we couldn’t stop the run,” said Burzawa, now in his 13th year at the helm at ETHS. “To succeed in high school football, that’s what you have to be able to do. We’ve had the longest off-season we’ll hopefully ever be a part of, but I feel like the kids are right there because of their work in the weight room.
“Having a facility that the kids WANT to be in is a huge advantage. We have everything we need now to be successful. Mark Feldner has done an amazing job across the board for the students in all 32 sports because he is able to tailor the lifting workouts to each sport, and teach the right techniques.
“Our kids are hungry. They came in hungry after last season and I think they still have that burning inside of them. This has been a difficult year for the school, and for the country, but when the season was re-instated on January 29 we were all thrilled to have the opportunity to play again. All I wanted was for the seniors to have a positive end to the most tumultuous year of their lives and we relish the opportunity. We want to be champions in life, and on the field, and our theme this year is to win the day. We want to get better every day.”
Rosen’s first taste of what it’s like to be a varsity player came as a freshman when he showed up for a lifting session that was scheduled for the upperclassmen, and held his own. Burzawa insists he isn’t starting just because of his size.
“He has good footwork, and Naquan will be mad at me for saying this, but I think he’s ahead of where Naquan was technique-wise at that age,” said the head coach, referring to current Michigan State University standout (and ETHS grad) Naquan Jones. “He’s earned his starting job and he’s proved to the coaches he can do it. He’s a very bright kid, with a tremendous future. (Co-captain) Zach Myers has taken him under his wing and the offensive line is sort of like a family within a family this year.
“Zach is the anchor of that group (he’ll also start in the defensive line). He’s the ultimate team play and the kind of grinder I love. He’s physical, and he’s tough as nails.”
Jamarhe Bowen and Tyron Innis, who backed up the graduated Quadre Nicholson last year, bring backfield experience and help could also come from another senior, Daeshawn Hemphill, once he adjusts from the end of a grueling basketball season. The Kit coaching staff also plans to use Sebastian Cheeks (6-2, 205), the biggest back in that group, on both offense and defense now that the junior standout has fully recovered from shoulder surgery.
Cheeks burst onto the scene with 2 interception runbacks for touchdowns in his first varsity game as a sophomore, but only played in three full games in 2019. That didn’t prevent him from climbing up the recruiting lists as major universities from across the country, including Notre Dame, had already offered him full rides.
“He loves to lift, and he’s stronger than he was before,” Burzawa pointed out. “You’ll see No. 2 all over the field for us this year. I stopped counting the number of Division I offers for him — it’s overwhelming — because right now he has 6 weeks just to focus on being the best student-athlete he can be. He’s definitely an impact player.”
Junior Sean Cruz (6-1, 170) returns as the starting quarterback after throwing for 9 touchdowns and 1,255 yards as a sophomore. His chief targets figure to be veterans Jeremiah Lasley, Kamau Ransom, Jack Neumann, and Nick Jenkins, along with a transfer from Niles North, Gio Milam-Pryor. Lasley led the receiving corps last year with 31 catches for 463 yards and 3 TDs.
There are plenty of familiar faces back on defense, too. In the secondary, juniors Mark Canon Jr. (5 interceptions) and Ransom started as sophomores and Prior adds ball-hawking ability along with another senior, Devonte Wilson.
The linebacking corps of Cheeks, senior co-captain Ricardo Salinas (5-11, 180), Groff and Sebastian Ball (6-0, 190) could be the best unit in Burzawa’s tenure by season’s end. Up front, veterans Myers, Tony Callion (6-1, 230) and Jamari Jenkins (6-2, 205) will try to take their run-stopping ability to the next level.
Senior Fredrick Eberhart is back to handle the place-kicking duties, having converted 3 field goals and 24 PATs a year ago.