Evanston football coach Mike Burzawa knows there will be growing pains for his squad this season.
With six sophomores — and even a freshman — part of a youth movement in the ETHS program this fall, that’s about the only thing the veteran coach can count on starting with Friday’s home opener against Chicago Hubbard.
The Wildkits must replace most of their starters on both sides of the ball after graduating a senior group that led the way to a 6-4 record and came within one lost fumble of winning the Central Suburban League South division championship.
This might be the youngest varsity squad in school history, and it’s definitely the youngest team Burzawa has guided in his 19 years as a coach. Five sophomores figure to see action as starters at some point, mostly at the skill positions, and their progress from the freshmen level — where they were 8-1 — to varsity players will be closely monitored by the ETHS coaching staff.
It wasn’t an easy decision for Burzawa to promote that many youngsters.
“I’ve always thought the biggest jump in football is from the sophomore team to the varsity, and this is an even bigger jump,” Burzawa said. “But they all committed to the program and prepared well in the off-season, and we feel they can do it physically. Can they mentally understand all they need to do? There’s no doubt there will be some growing pains here. But I’ll take young, hungry guys who play up to their ability, even though we know they’ll be challenged week in and week out.
“Based on who we had coming back from last year, both the sophomore and junior classes were thin at the skill positions. It was an open competition (in preseason training camp) and these sophomores have earned respect of the others and they’re among the top football players in our program, or they wouldn’t be up.”
Burzawa and his staff are counting on returning starters like Christian Nielsen, Morgan Brown, Ben Easington and Charlie Krause to provide the leadership to guide the younger players through the rough patches of what might be the most difficult schedule the Wildkits have faced since Burzawa took over the program.
Seniors Nielsen (6-foot-2, 235 pounds) and Brown (6-1, 270) anchor an offensive line that could be the top unit in the Central Suburban League on that side of the ball. Joining them will be junior Trey Dawkins (6-1, 260), senior Eliazar Mendoza-Cabrera (6-5, 265) and senior Marcus Hopson (6-2, 265), at least until newcomer Donail Rucker — a senior who at 6-5, 310 is out for football for the first time — becomes eligible to play the second week of the season.
What kind of leaders are Nielsen and Brown? They helped recruit Rucker out of the halls at ETHS and both players will also start on defense, a first for Nielsen.
“Neither one of them played much defense last year. Nielsen in particular is foaming at the mouth to get on the defensive side of the ball,” Burzawa pointed out.
“He’s been an absolute blessing for this program. Chemistry is really important and they’re both taking pride in the process, and they’ve really taken control of the lockerroom. It really makes me happy to see how much they care.
“Having kids like that who understand what we are as a program, who are accountable and dependable and respectful, is really great because the younger guys will follow those who’ve already lived through it. That will pay huge dividends for us down the road.”
Sophomores moving up to play with the big boys are tailback Malik Ross (5-7, 160); wide receiver Gerrad Lamour (5-9, 165); wide receiver Michael Axelrood (6-1, 170); tailback Josh Jones (5-10, 180); defensive back Trenton Bertrand (5-6, 150); and offensive lineman Isadore Lobin (6-2, 260). Freshman Quadre Nicholson (5-11, 165) was promoted late in the preseason to provide help at free safety.
Evanston figures to return to a power rushing game — even out of a spread formation — with a brand new crew of receivers and a brand-new quarterback. Junior Drew Dawkins (5-8, 160) served as a backup last year but did lead the Wildkits to a win over Waukegan in his only start.
“Our system hasn’t really changed. It’s just about knowing who you are as a team,” said Burzawa. “You have to run the ball and you have to pass the ball to be successful. Drew is crafty back there, a good athlete with good pocket awareness. He has to continue to improve his decision making.”
ETHS will try a tailback-by-committee approach the first couple of weeks until a front-runner emerges. Top candidates to lead the ground attack are senior Montell Wilburn (5-8, 170), Easington (6-0, 190) and Ross. Junior Charlie Gruner (5-10, 200) figures to start at fullback, although senior Damariay Birge is a bundle of dynamite in short yardage situations at 5-8, 240.
Receiver positions are up for grabs among senior Andrew Baumann (6-1, 180), senior Miles Grosz (5-11, 170), and Axelrood, who might have the best hands in the program. Senior Owen Ennis (5-11, 185) returns to handle both the placekicking and punting duties after a strong junior season. He booted 6 field goals in 9 attempts and also converted 31-of-32 extra point kicks.
Up front on defense, the Kits will count on Birge, Nielsen, Brown and Dawkins plus senior Elyjah Williams (6-6, 230). Providing depth are seniors Brandon Williams (6-5, 215) and Tyler Battle (6-5, 210). Krause (6-2, 220), Easington and senior Joe Downie (6-0, 185) will man the linebacker slots, backed up by junior Fletcher Brown (5-11, 170), senior Jake Greifer (5-8, 160), Axelrood, Ross and Bertrand in the defensive backfield.
Evanston’s path to the Illinois High School Association state playoffs will be more difficult this fall. Niles North has moved from the CSL North to the CSL South following Waukegan’s decision to leave the league, and CSL athletic directors have decided to eliminate the previously mandatory crossover contests between the two divisions in favor of a two-year scheduling agreement with the Mid-Suburban League.
So after facing Hubbard and Foreman the first two weeks of the season, the Kits will play at Conant on Sept. 9 and will host Barrington on Sept. 16. “It’s an exciting change from a competitive standpoint, and we’re looking forward to the challenge,” said Burzawa.
“We’re not on anybody’s radar right now. We only have 3 guys back on each side of the ball, and everybody thinks we have nothing. Knowing that, I expect our guys to play with a chip on our shoulders. I don’t know what our (won-loss) record will be but I’m happy to fly under the radar. And I think we can surprise some people.”
Dennis Mahoney is sports information director for ETHS.