Soaked to the bone by the driving rain and chilled to the core by the November wind, Carl Reed stood on Lamothe Field at Lutheran North
and made a declaration.
“We'll be back,” the Lutheran North football coach said.
Reed's Crusaders fell one point short in their bid to unseat now seven-time defending Class 2 state champion Lamar. The Tigers escaped with a 7-6 state semifinal victory.
At the time, Reed could have been wrapped up in the moment, engulfed in the swirling emotions of a high-stakes game that was there for the taking and slipped.
Reed can be emotional but more often than not he's rational. And it's rational for Reed to believe the Lutheran North football team can go on another deep playoff run and take a shot at the championship.
The Crusaders graduated a bevy of talented seniors from a 12-1 team that was on the cusp of breaking the longest dynasty in Missouri high school football. But there is plenty of big-time talent back in the fold.
The offensive line returns all five starters. The headliner is right tackle and Missouri recruit Jack Buford
(6-foot-5, 330 pounds). At left tackle is junior Kevon Billingsley
(6-5, 275), who is a national prospect in his own right with a slew of offers including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Michigan and Mizzou. Sophomore Justen Richardson (6-1, 260) is the left guard, senior Jesse Ochoa (6-2, 260) is the right guard and sophomore Jaylin Knox (5-10, 300) is at center.
Last season, the Crusaders overpowered their opponents on the ground with an old-school Wing T offense that produced three 1,000-yard rushers who all graduated. Senior Isaiah Azubuike
(5-11, 220) is a four-year varsity contributor who played primarily at linebacker last season. He's waited patiently for his turn as the featured back and it has finally arrived. He passed over the likes of Iowa, Kansas State, Wisconsin and several Ivy League schools to verbally commit to Arkansas State, which likes him at running back.
Juniors Jalen Head
(5-8, 175) and Jordan Smith
(5-10, 165) fill out the running back stable. Smith started at defensive back last season.
Senior quarterback Josh Hopkins
(6-4, 185) wasn't asked to do much through the air in his first tour as a starter. He completed 21 of his 43 pass attempts for 442 yards, eight touchdowns and was intercepted twice. Hopkins' role will expand this season.
“Josh has worked tremendously hard in the offseason,” Reed said. “His teammates voted him a captain. He's going to surprise some people.”
Hopkins will have an elite weapon to utilize in junior receiver Itayvion Brown (6-5, 215). Brown sat last season after he transferred from Jennings. Brown has the tools to be among the top prospects in the Midwest by season's end. Mizzou has already offered him a scholarship.
The defense did graduate significant talent and experience including Post-Dispatch All-Metro Football defensive player of the year Ronnie Perkins who's now at Oklahoma. But the Crusaders will do plenty of thumping this year.
Senior defensive end D'Vion Harris
(6-4, 225) committed to Minnesota after sifting through 16 Division I offers. He had 74 tackles and six sacks as a junior. Billinglsey will go both ways and has made most of his recruiting hay as a defensive tackle.
Smith and junior Cam Reed (6-0, 170) return at defensive back. Reed has offers from Ball State and Western Michigan. Sophomore Jerrell Carter (5-10, 170) and junior Aubrey Parker (5-9, 170) will also be in the corner back, safety mix. Parker had 38 tackles and two interceptions at Belleville East last season.
In an attempt to best prepare his team for a long playoff run, Reed built a schedule that borders on masochistic. Lutheran North opens up in suburban Chicago against Nazareth Academy, last season's Class 6A runner up. That is followed by a showdown against another Chicago area juggernaut in Homewood Flossmoor at the Gateway Scholars Classic at East St. Louis High. Homewood Flossmoor qualified for the Class 8A playoffs last season.
The Crusaders end their wild three weeks with a road trip to Cincinnati to take on perennial Ohio state championship contender, Elder.
“I wanted our guys to go into hostile environments and play teams that are more talented and have more depth than them so they'll have to fight to be out there,” Reed said. “I wanted to put our team under tremendous adversity and see how they respond to it.”
Lutheran North faced significant adversity twice last season. The first time it prevailed as it held off Trinity 48-46 to win the Class 2 District 2 title game. It saw it again against Lamar when a blocked point after kick prevented the Crusaders from drawing even in the fourth quarter.
Reed's hope is the schedule will callous the Crusaders and remind them every play matters. Even something as routine as an extra-point kick can make or break championship dreams.
“You have to be focused on the little things,” Reed said. “You don't win just by showing up. You have to work to make it happen.”