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By MIKE SANDROLINI
WESTCHESTER | For many years, the St. Joseph High School football team was the antithesis of the school’s highly successful basketball team, led by legendary Gene Pingatore—the all-time winningest coach in IHSA boys’ basketball history.
The Chargers won one game each year from 2001 to 2002, but things would only get worse from a won-loss standpoint. During a five-year stretch—2003 to 2007—they didn’t win a single game. St. Joseph finally broke that long skid—which had reached 45 games—in 2008 with a victory in Week 1.
The Chargers went 2-7 that year, but couldn’t get over the hump. They never won more than two games per season from 2008 to 2015—including consecutive winless seasons in 2010 and 2011. Last year, though, the Chargers’ fortunes on the gridiron changed dramatically. Not only did they record their first winning season—7-3—since IHSA records on the team have been kept (1994), but the Chargers advanced to the postseason for the first time in the football program’s history. The Chargers dropped their first-round Class 2A playoff game to Peru St. Bede, but the season, as you might expect, generated an interest and excitement in St. Joseph football that’s never been experienced.
“It was unbelievable, the people calling me, the alumni the school,” said head coach Rich Petroski, who’s beginning his second year. “At the school it was huge. Being the first head coach to actually get this team over the hump per se, it was just unbelievable for us because it changed the atmosphere of what we did. It changed the atmosphere of a football program and kids actually wanted to come out and play football now.”
How did the Chargers manage such a remarkable turnaround in one season? Petroski says it’s a combination of two intangibles—attitude and the fact that the Chargers do have talented football players. “We changed the mindset here and that’s the biggest thing when I took over,” said Petroski. “That’s what I wanted to do. The first thing I told them is we need to control our attitude. Our attitude is what’s going to make us better as a team. “I know the talent that comes through here,” added Petroski, a Morton High School graduate who himself considered attending St. Joseph in the 1990s. “I saw the team last year and I thought, ‘This would be the ideal team for me to take over this year.’ ”
Here’s a prime example of what Petroski is talking about. When the Chargers finally snapped their long losing streak in 2008, a young man by the name of Cameron Meredith was their quarterback. Meredith is now one of the Chicago Bears’ primary wide receivers. A handful of Bellwood residents have been instrumental in the Chargers’ recent turnaround. Isaiah Davis was the starting quarterback who led them to the playoffs last fall. Davis has since graduated, but 6-foot-4 junior Caleb Hayden, another Bellwood resident, has taken over calling the signals.
“Caleb actually played a lot for me last year,” Petroski said. “He actually played in the playoff game so coming in I am very confident in Caleb. He’s already grown about three inches since the summer.” Petroski said Aamir Burgie is likely going to be the Chargers’ starting running back. He also plays cornerback and wide receiver. He’s not the prototypical Catholic League running back,” said Petroski, “but my thing is that we run so fast, we’re fast moving, he’s a very good piece of the puzzle because you can’t see him behind the offensive line. He has that sneaky speed and if he gets to that second level he could be gone.”
A third Bellwood resident, Mekhi Eiland, is a sophomore who’s slated to be a two-way starter for the Chargers as an outside receiver and middle linebacker. “Mekhi’s brother actually graduated from here two years ago,” Petroski said. “We think very highly of Mekhi because of his stature and his maturity already.” Burgie and Eiland are cousins “so there’s the family tie-in,” Petroski said, “and Caleb is always with Aamir. I think they all wanted to win together. That’s the biggest thing from last year. They’re actually back-to-back conference champs for JV (junior varsity). So they have something to live up to because they beat everybody in our conference on JV.” Petroski added that “we were fortunate enough to get them (Hayden, Burgie and Eiland) over here (at St. Joseph). “They probably have 10-15 friends that go to Proviso,” he said. “They could have very easily gone to Proviso West.”
Petroski believes football has turned a corner at St. Joseph, and he’s looking forward to what he hopes is the Chargers returning to the playoffs this October. “We’re at about 45 kids; this is the most we’ve had (out for football) in about six or seven years here,” he said. “I love our chances especially with the team that we have. We only have eight seniors and 18 juniors so that just tells you the depth we have. With our conference in the Catholic League Red, we have DePaul, Leo and Chicago Hope this year. The game that’s going to make or break us is that Chicago Hope game in Week 4. If we can get past Chicago Hope, I think that we can run the table until we face Brother Rice. That’s a feat in itself, but just seeing how hungry we are, they’re not afraid of anybody. They know that they put their pants on the same way everybody else does.” One of football team’s biggest supporters is Coach Pingatore himself. “It’s just so funny to me,” Petroski said. “Coach Ping wins his 1,000th game (in February, 2017) and what happens? We got to the playoffs (in 2016). We got trumped by Coach Ping, but he is an advocate for us. He has been pushing kids to go out (for football) because he knows what energy we’re bringing to the program.”