The Riverside-Brookfield High School football team gears up for its season opener against Morton during practice on Aug. 22. (Shanel Romain/Staff Photographer)

Senior linebacker Drew Swiatek is among 16 returning starters for the Riverside-Brookfield High School football team.

There’s still quite a different feeling to the start of this season preparing for the Aug. 26 opener at Morton.

“It’s a whole new coaching staff, coaching schemes. I’m really excited about everything that’s new to come,” Swiatek said. “I think we’ve come a long way from last season, how we finished. We’re not happy with that so work harder this year to have a different outcome at the end.”

The Bulldogs had plenty of 2021 success that they can build upon behind their experienced lineup under new head coach Sam Styler, who has been the sophomore/freshman head coach the past three seasons while helping the varsity defense on game nights. Many assistant coaches also have experience on the program’s staff.

“We’re really excited about the group were having back,” Styler said. “The way they’ve come together so far this offseason has been one of the strengths.”

Last season, Swiatek (5-11, 180 pounds), seniors Ryan Novak (6-1, 200) and Joe Midona (5-11, 235) and juniors Luke Kumskis (6-3, 205) and Jackson Ramos (6-2, 305) earned All-Metro Suburban Conference Red Division honors as the Bulldogs finished 5-5 (4-1 in MSC Red) and reached the playoffs for the second consecutive postseason.

The Bulldogs, however, lost their last three regular-season games and their IHSA Class 6A playoff opener 66-0 at East St. Louis, which eventually lost to Cary-Grove 37-36 for the state championship. 

All five RBHS losses came to state playoff teams that won at least their playoff opener.

“Any time you lose that badly in the first round of the playoffs, it’s going to leave a tough taste in your mouth,” Styler said. “Our guys are going to use that as motivation, just the adversity they had to go through in that week.”

Novak is a fourth-year starter who also earned All-MSC honors in the COVID-affected 2021 spring season. The two-way starting running back and linebacker as a junior rushed for 319 yards and 10 touchdowns and had 54 total tackles with two sacks, a forced fumble and interception. 

Junior Diego Gutierrez returns at quarterback (385 passing yards with 4 TDs, 2 rushing TDs) as well as senior wide receiver/kicker Iggy Bielobradek (166 yards, 2 TDs). 

Also back is the entire starting offensive line – senior center David Hernandez, guards Ramos and junior Manny Garcia-Rivera, tackles Midona and senior Philly Vazzana and tight end Kumskis.

“You can’t argue with that strength,” Styler said. 

Seven starters return on defense, including the core of the usual 3-5 formation’s linebacker corps in Novak, Swiatek (46 tackles, team-high 10 tackles for loss) and seniors Marques Turner (21 tackles) and Marcus Moody. Senior Nate Padilla (fumble recovery) and junior Anthony Petrucci return in the defensive secondary as well as junior lineman Dillon Coen.

Others looking to contribute include junior running back/quarterback David Valencia, senior Adam Unostegui and junior Mohammed Salem at wide receiver, senior defensive linemen Gio Gonzalez and Devontae Givens, senior defensive back Jackson Drumheller and junior linebacker Jack Grivetti.

“I think we learned that nothing’s really going to be given to us,” Swiatek said. “You have to work for every game. We’ve got to treat every game the same. We’ll have to work for it.”