By Jason Maholy
That’s how long it had been since Chicago Christian had opened a season with three consecutive wins.
The 2008 season had, for that matter, been as many trips around the sun since the Knights won three games in a row at any point of the season; and is also the last time they made the playoffs or finished with more than four victories.
You youngsters may not remember, but Christian was for a span of five years earlier this century on the cusp of becoming a powerhouse. Between 2004 and 2008 the Knights won no fewer than seven games each season, including four campaigns of at least eight-wins. The 2006 team under head coach Mark Vander Kooi started 9-0 and earned one of two top seeds in the Class 4A playoffs, only to lose to 16th-seeded Mendota in the first round. Vander Kooi’s 2007 team went 10-2 and advanced to the Class 4A quarterfinals.
The Knights entered 2018 having won as many as four games in a season only three times in the past nine years, including last season. Christian has been trending up – they won one game in 2015, head coach Nick Cook’s first year with the program, then three in 2016 and four in 2017 – but getting over the hump to five wins after a decade of losing seasons is not the simplest proposition.
The Knights have exorcised one of those demons, after a 14-6 victory over Guerin on Sept. 7 in Palos Heights left them unbeaten after three games. The 10 seniors who Cook said provide leadership and have helped him establish the culture he sought to instill in the program when he took over in 2015 were second-graders the last time that happened.
“It’s good,” Cook said, adding that former Chicago Christian athletic director Eric Brauer, who is not the boys baseball coach at Lincoln-Way East, sent him a congratulatory text regarding the 3-0 start.
The big play against Guerin was a 98-yard punt return for a touchdown by Jonathan Griffin that broke a 6-6 tie late in the third quarter. Griffin, a senior playmaker who is used at running back and wide receiver, and also plays defensive back, fumbled the punt inside the 10 but quickly regained control and went nearly the length of the filed through traffic for the game-changing score.
The Knights failed on both of their extra point attempts, but the defense came up big with a safety to put them up eight.
Griffin finished with 10 touches for 139 all-purpose yards and the touchdown, while junior running back Ryley Bulthuis caught a touchdown pass from quarterback Jeffrey Smith. Senior running back Desmond Rodgers had 13 carries for 69 yards to raise his three-game total to 387 rushing yards. Rodgers has also scored five touchdowns.
The Knights have as a team rushed for 675 yards.
Griffin, who has been getting attention from several FBS programs, has 485 all-purpose yards on 35 touches, and has contributed big on defense with four interceptions. He is part of a prevention corps that has made stops at key moments in games.
“Those guys have come up big,” Cook said. “It’s been a little ugly at times, but you get [opposing offenses] off the field you get them of the field.”
Key to that defense have been a trio of seniors: Clark Fremouw, a 6-foot-6, 290-pound interior lineman; defensive end Lucas Kintz; and Smith, the quarterback who moonlights as a defensive end.
“They’re all returning starters and that’s helping out a ton,” Cook said.
Christian is also experienced at linebacker, where junior Ty Sperling and senior Joshua Purnell man the outside.
The offensive line, meanwhile, is the strongest group the Knights have had in Cook’s four years at the school, he said. They pave the way from Rodgers, the Knights’ bell cow back, and Griffin, a lean and lanky Alvin Kamara-esque all-purpose weapon Cook referred to as a “Swiss Army knife.”
Griffin, Rodgers and the other seniors – who were freshmen during Cook’s first year at the school – have been integral to the Knights’ success this season.
“It’s huge,” he said. “We recruit senior leadership every year, but this is the first group that we’ve seen through, and we have more seniors this year than in the past recent years. But leadership-wise, this group of guys – when you get a group of guys you can develop for four years, and who stick around, that always equals a good thing for a football team.”
Those seniors have also helped build a team culture and core values, and Cook said their effort and contributions on and off the field are paying dividends. He cited the Bible’s Psalm 128, Verse 2, which essentially states, “you will eat the fruit of your labor.”
“It takes four years worth of work to see some of that fruit in a group of guys,” Cook said, noting the team building activities and offseason programs in which they’ve participated. “They have a whole career’s worth of work in.
“But we’re just getting started here (this season.) We take it one week at a time. Every week we refocus, we be there for each other and support each other and believe in each other, and we give it our best shot and see how it comes out.”