Riverside-Brookfield head football coach Brendan Curtin’s office is littered with helmets, jerseys, photos, schedules and essentially all cool things Bulldog football. You’ll also find perched high on the walls a series of motivational sayings hand picked by Curtin that would make even life coach/self-help author Tony Robbins envious.
Based on the Bulldogs’ resurgence this season, highlighted by a five-game winning streak and Class 6A playoff berth, Curtin’s campaign for a better football program didn’t include any empty slogans.
“I’m big on having that [motivational] literature and having those kinds of messages visible for our players to focus on,” Curtin said. “I think the kids, especially our team leaders, really took ownership of the blueprint we established in terms of what’s expected among the players.”
This year’s rallying cry for RBHS was, “respect all, fear none.”
“I decided on [the team motto] last spring because I knew we had the players to get it done this season,” Curtin said. “They needed to play with confidence. I wanted them to carry a swagger of being in the driver’s seat during games. A belief that after building a lead for three quarters, they can finish the job rather than thinking ‘Oh my God, we might actually win this game.'”
Records speak louder than words. The Bulldogs finished 6-4 this fall after a 1-8 mark in 2013 and 2-7 showing in 2012. The RBHS sophomore and freshmen teams recorded 13 wins, collectively, this year.
The confluence of a newly formed Metro Suburban Conference Western Division, a more manageable nonconference schedule, and most of all, a dedicated and talented crew of Bulldogs all played roles in the success.
“We had a great time,” RBHS linebacker/running back David Pribyl-Pierdinock said. “Obviously winning games is great and a lot of fun. We played hard. Even though it didn’t turn out how we would have liked against Glenbard South [31-7 loss in the second round of the 6A playoffs], we proved that we’re capable of accomplishing good things as a program.”
The postseason setback to Glenbard South proved particularly painful for Pribyl-Pierdinock, who tore his right anterior cruciate ligament against the Raiders.
“I was changing direction to chase a running back and someone blocked me. I felt a pop in my knee and couldn’t run on it,” Pribyl-Pierdinock said. “I hope to get surgery sooner rather than later. After that, it’s just a matter of recovery, rehab, lifting and then I’ll be back.”
Bulldogs’ balance on both sides of ball sparked winning streak
After a 1-2 start (including losses to highly regarded Nazareth and St. Edward), the Bulldogs reeled off five straight victories outscoring their opponents 202-68. The team also established an entertaining brand of football along the way.
Offensively, Matt Chapp did it all as a constant scoring threat at running back, slot receiver and returner. The elusive 5-11, 185-pound senior rushed for 752 yards and eight touchdowns on 99 carries, had 29 catches for 363 yards and six touchdowns plus 577 total yards on 18 returns (kickoffs/punts) and four more scores. He tallied 18 touchdowns on the season and also was the team’s punter.
For Chapp, who missed the majority of his junior campaign with an injury, this season was special due to the players’ togetherness.
“Even though coming back from my injury was a personal goal, it was the team that really helped me do it,” Chapp said. “We have such a good brotherhood here. It made me want to get better even faster so I could be on the field with my teammates.”
Junior quarterback Ryan Swift (1,248 passing yards, 14 touchdown passes) ran the offense well, which included other weapons like running back Brian Kulaga (68 carries, 347 yards, 5 TDs), tight end Kyle Tracy (19 catches, 266 yards) and wide receivers Dean Zigulich (29 catches, 317 yards, 5 TDs) and Antone Dixon (21 catches, 242 yards) plus a solid offensive line led by 6-5, 285-pound offensive tackle Louis Grigoletti. Kicker Nick Fucinato made 6 of 8 field goals and 32 of 34 PATs.
Along with Pribyl-Pierdinock (78 total tackles, five sacks), Jordan Petronella, Mike McCabe, Dan Magee and Adolfo Linares, the defense became known as “The Dark Side,” featuring an attacking style of play that caused turnovers.
“We have a bunch of great playmakers on defense that have been playing several years on the varsity level,” Petronella said during the regular season. “We also have good chemistry and we know who needs to make plays at the right time.
“A lot of credit belongs to our coaches. It’s a privilege to play for the coaches we have because they work their butts off to help us get better.”
Overall, eight RBHS players earned all-conference recognition: Chapp, Grigoletti, Swift, Zigulich, Pribyl-Pierdinock, Petronella, Linares and Fucinato.
“Our defense was exceptional,” Swift said. “They had a shutout plus held opponents to seven points or less in several other games. The offense did pretty well, but I thought we had a few hiccups that we can work on for next year. Personally, as the quarterback the responsibility falls on my shoulders to be the leader.”
Swift’s maturity is music to Curtin’s ears. Across the board, players have taken on more accountability regarding the fortunes of the RBHS program.
“Now that the season is over, we can all step back and reflect on what it took for us to achieve the success we had,” Curtin said. “There was a lot of hard work involved. I always tell our players that success always looks easy to those who weren’t around when it was being earned.
“I think the kids did a good job of taking it one day at a time and not looking at the big picture of a full season. One day at a time, one challenge at a time. If you put little victories together, good things happen.”
An extensive program of off-season work will allow the returning players plenty of opportunities to prepare for next season.
“We remember all the work it took us to get to this point,” Swift said. “Now we have to work even harder to exceed our [6-4] record. I know all the returning guys who will be seniors are going to work hard for continued improvement.”
Added Pribyl-Pierdinock: “We have a fun team with a lot of different personalities, but we also knew when to get down to business and work hard. There will be a lot of openings with a lot of competition for those spots next season. That’s good because everybody needs to work hard to maintain the program’s success.”
Although the season ended in disappointing fashion with consecutive losses to Glenbard South, high expectations and plenty of buzz serve as the baseline for RBHS heading into next season.
“We return a great group of kids,” Curtin said. “Our players know that we can continue to have success. It’s in our control as long as we remain focused. Our program is about trust, commitment and accountability.
“The memory of touchdowns and tackles will fade away over time, but the relationships we share within the program are most important. I just love football, especially RB football. I think we should have something going on every day of the year about Bulldog football.”