Riverside-Brookfield High School football coach Brendan Curtin spent his first three years on the job instilling a sense of work ethic and pride in the program.
Now the Bulldogs are hoping to instill some fear in their opponents.
RBHS returns 11 starters from a squad that enjoyed a 6-3 regular season and runner-up finish in the Metro Suburban Conference West Division, earning the school’s first playoff berth since 2010.
Among the veterans are three All-Conference seniors in quarterback Ryan Swift, linebacker David Pribyl-Pierdinock and defensive back Dean Zigulich.
“They’re a handful of guys who have been with us since they were sophomores,” Curtin said. “When you have guys like that it’s an advantage. That experience is invaluable.”
More importantly, this year’s team has a deep understanding of the commitment and values Curtin, a RBHS alum, expects and cherishes.
“This senior class is a class I came in with when they were freshmen,” Curtin said. “I think they’ve been ingrained in the culture and expectations and values that we’ve instilled.
“The guys have put the time in the weight room and they really get it. As a coach, it’s nice when you work with kids where they’re focused and know what they want to do. There is a professional demeanor about these guys.”
That has begun to pay off on the field. After winning just five games from 2011 to 2013, the Bulldogs surged to a 6-4 mark last fall.
While there is no guarantee that success will continue, especially with a road-heavy schedule made more difficult by the delay in opening the school’s new football stadium (Kennelly Athletic Complex), Curtin is optimistic.
“Obviously every team’s goal is to get to the second season and we’re no different,” Curtin said. “It will be a tough grind playing on the road as much as we have to, but we always say R-B is our toughest opponent. We’re focused on what we’re doing, trying to get things right in our own backyard first.”
Since their stadium will not be open until Oct. 1 at the earliest, the Bulldogs will play at least their first five games on the road or at neutral sites, starting with trips to Morton and Wauconda. The first home game, against St. Edward on Sept. 12, will be played at Lyons Township High School.
“We’re excited to get going,” Curtin said. “It’s a tough hand that we’ve been dealt being on the road early on, but (the players) are excited. Our mindset is any time, any place they put the football down, we’ll be ready.”
That preparation starts with Swift, who is entering his third season under center. He’ll have some solid weapons in two-way standouts Pribyl-Pierdinock, a bruising fullback, and Zigulich, who also starts at receiver.
“I think Ryan will be the first to tell you that he has room for improvement,” Curtin said. “He’s very locked in. A lot of guys in his position would lay back and take it easy but that’s not how he’s wound.
“He’s not satisfied and that rubs off on his teammates. It’s a great thing to have.”
The Bulldogs also have experience on the line of scrimmage in returning starting offensive linemen Frank Urbanski and Fillip Sofeski and two starters on the defensive line in Edwin Rios and junior Ja’Mari Wise, who will also see time out wide as part of a deep receiving corps that includes senior Devonte Mikkel and junior Jalen Williams.
They will be joined by a pair of transfers. Defensive lineman/running back Al’Lon Carter is a 6-0, 220-pound senior from Proviso West, while offensive lineman Delon Elem, a 5-9, 220-pound senior, comes over from North Lawndale.
Also back are defensive linemen Jake Campbell and Sam Falk, who can also play linebacker, and linebacker Jeremiah Clarkson, who figure to help a defensive unit that features Zigulich, who was runner-up in the voting for Metro Suburban West Defensive Player of the Year honors.
“I think our defense will take another step in the right direction,” Curtin said. “Last year we had a new coordinator (Matt Erlenbaugh) and you always expect to improve from Year 1 to Year 2.
“We’re known for being a tough defensive team and we want to be an attacking defense. Our defensive philosophy has always been we want to play at the upper range of our skill set regardless of the situation or the opponent.”
That could prove crucial in Week 9, when the Bulldogs host defending conference champion Glenbard South, which scored a combined 69 points in back-to-back victories over RBHS last season, including a 31-7 win in the first round of the Class 6A playoffs.
Both of those games were on the road, but this time the Raiders will have to play in the Bulldogs’ new stadium against a team with a new-found sense of purpose.