There’s something just not normal about Benet football this season, and it goes beyond having a 6-foot-9 offensive lineman.
There’s no avoiding Sean O’Mara on the football field, and for those familiar with his basketball talents in the post it’s a little strange watching this particular left tackle. Not one NFL lineman stands taller than O’Mara, but there he is helping lead the Redwings in a playoff run for the ages.
Meet the new normal in DuPage County football.
At this time of year — with basketball season right around the corner — we’re usually talking about typical football powers like Wheaton Warrenville South trying to patch together a hoops squad until the Tigers’ football team is finished driving toward another state title.
Not this year. Because WW South did not make the playoffs, Tigers basketball coach Bob Szorc had all nine of his football players in camp on Day One.
“It’s strange,” Szorc said. “That’s not who we are as a school.”
Unexpectedly, it’s what Benet has become as a school.
Redwings basketball coach Gene Heidkamp has led his team to 77 wins the last three years, including two regional titles and a sectional title in 2010. The school’s recent lack of football success virtually guaranteed Heidkamp a full roster at the beginning of preseason practice, but not this year.
For the first time Heidkamp will feel the emptiness experienced for years by most area football powers. Of course, he’ll feel it with a smile.
“It’s good for the school,” Heidkamp said. “It’s unusual, and it’s the first time since I’ve been here, but it’s a good thing. We’re all happy for the players and the school.”
O’Mara, one of the elite basketball players in the Class of 2014, is a third-year varsity hoops player and only one of the football players still a ways from putting on a Benet basketball uniform. Two other players slated to be basketball starters — Jack Toner and Jack Euritt — are busy catching touchdown passes from quarterback Jack Beneventi, another basketball player.
This is uncharted water for Benet, which is experiencing an incredible athletic boom. Seven fall East Suburban Catholic Conference titles led to a repeat Class 4A state championship by the girls volleyball team and the football team’s first league title since 1998.
The Redwings, 1-8 last year, have won 11 games for only the second time in program history and they’re in the semifinals for the first time since a runner-up Class 4A finish in 1984. A victory over Lincoln-Way East at 6 p.m. Saturday at Lisle’s Benedictine University would give Benet a shot at winning its first football state title.
“It’s been incredible for the school,” said Benet football coach Pat New. “I’m constantly hearing from alumni. The support for the team has just been amazing.”
It’s support Heidkamp knows all too well. Few teams in Chicagoland have as fierce a fan following as Benet boys basketball, proven the last few years in soldout gyms throughout the city and suburbs.
Basketball fans, however, should not judge the Redwings on their early-season performance against a fierce schedule. Benet plays Naperville North, Oswego East, Andrew, York and Curie through the first weekend in December.
After hitting the ground running and not slowing each of the last three years, the Redwings may slowly build to a sprint as the season moves through the winter months. Benet may not have the lofty record of the last few years, but chances are no one’s going to want to face the Redwings come playoff time.
“I keep in perspective that football’s different from basketball,” Heidkamp said. “We’ve got time to get everything in order once everyone gets acclimated to basketball.”
For now the entire school is rallying behind the football team heading into Saturday’s semifinal showdown.
Short-handed as they may be, the remaining members of the Redwings’ basketball team — including third-year starter Pat McInerney — will be right there rooting with the rest of the fans.
“A few years ago no one really believed in us until we kept passing the tests on the schedule,” Heidkamp said. “I think it’s the same with the football team. I think everyone finally believes they’re for real.”
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