JOLIET— When Joliet West rebounded from a one-sided loss to Homewood-Flossmoor last year to win at Sandburg a week later, the Tigers had their football moment.
“That’s when we knew it was legit,’’ linebacker Jacob Pullen said. “We knew then we were a team in this conference that wasn’t one of the bottom four.’’
H-F and Sandburg, along with Bolingbrook and Lincoln-Way East, usually are among the top four in the SouthWest Suburban Blue, a spot Joliet West slowly rose to after the victory over Sandburg.
“That was a huge win for us, boosted everyone’s confidence,’’ running back Jakob Coyl said. “In the past, everyone was ‘Oh, we can’t beat the bigger teams. We have no chance.’ After the Sandburg game, we stepped it up. We can beat whoever we set our mind to beat.’’
“That was a program changer for us,’’ West coach Jason Aubry said. It also led to the Tigers’ first berth in the state playoffs.
“I think it really set a standard for us as far as what we’ve got to continue to do, day in and day out,’’ Pullen said of reaching the Class 8A playoffs. “It’s a building block. Eventually, it’s going to turn into ‘We’ve got to win conference.’ ’’
Pullen and his teammates have challenging goals for West’s final SouthWest Blue season before the Tigers move to the Southwest Prairie Conference in 2016.
“I believe we have the team here to go 6-3, 7-2,’’ Pullen said. “I believe we have a shot at the big three – Bolingbrook, Lincoln-Way East, H-F.’’
“If you walk out on the field knowing you’re going to lose to Bolingbrook, guess what’s going to happen? You’re going to get your butts handed to you,’’ Aubry said. “But if you go on the field thinking ‘We’re going to beat this team,’ now you’ve got a fighting chance.’’
West has six returning starters on defense, led by middle linebacker Meekah Ben-Israel (6-foot-3, 245 pounds). The others are linebackers Pullen and Noah Dillon and linemen Patrick Leaf, Noah Dulski and Juan Hernandez.
“Years past, we haven’t really had people to rush the passer,’’ Pullen said. “The quarterback is sitting back there, guys are getting open. Now I really feel on the 'D’' line, we have guys who can get there and mess with the quarterback.’’
Lineman Jesse Rhymes, linebacker Drew Smith, safeties Roman Johnson and Marcus Blackmon and cornerbacks Marcus Williams and Cody Norman also are expected to be key contributors on defense.
Offensively, the returning starters are Coyl, quarterback Alex Tibble and guard Mike Lewis. The line also will include Gabe Venegas, Javier Rueda, Taje Hymon and Jake Tuider.
“I’m a strong inside runner,’’ Coyl said. “I like to run downhill, tough it out, scrap for yards every run. Head down and go, take the hits.’’
Other individuals who will be vital to the offense are running back Juwan McBee and receivers Xavier Smith, Zack Browning, John Choate and Kevon Dorris, a freshman.
“The biggest thing that we have seen the past few years is the culture that has changed at Joliet West,’’ Aubry said. “We talk about it now an awful lot, our best players are our hardest workers.
“Alex Tibble, he is the hardest worker on the offensive side of the ball. Meekah Ben-Israel, our best defensive player, he is the hardest worker on defense.’’
West opens with nonconference road games against Moline and Plainfield South before the conference season.
“I think we’re going to be in the playoffs earlier than we were last year,’’ Aubry said. “We’re going to get that fifth win a lot earlier this season.’’
The first two conference games are Sept. 11 at home against Lincoln-Way East and Sept. 18 at Bolingbrook.
“That’s the next thing. OK, we beat Sandburg,’’ Aubry said. “Now, ‘Who are we going to beat this year?’ That’s their mindset.’’
TIGERS AT A GLANCE
Coach: Jason Aubry
2014 record: 5-5l, 3-4 in SouthWest Suburban Blue
Classification enrollment: 3,005 (probable class 8A)
Offensive coordinator: Mark Peterson
Defensive coordinator: Harry Hessling
Returning offensive starters: QB Alex Tibble, RB Jakob Coyl, OG Mike Lewis,
Returning defensive starters: DL Patrick Leaf, Noah Dulski, Juan Hernandez, MLB Meekah Ben-Israel, LB Jacob Pullen, Noah Dillon
August: 28 -– at Moline, 6:30 p.m.
September: 4 – at Plainfield South, 7 p.m.; 11 – vs. Lincoln-Way East, 6:30 p.m.; 18 – at Bolingbrook, 7 p.m.; 26 – vs. Joliet Central, noon.
October: 3 – vs. Homewood-Flossmoor, 1 p.m.; 9 – at Sandburg, 7:15 p.m.; 17 – vs. Stagg, 1 p.m.; 23 – at Lockport, 7 p.m.