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T.F. South’s running back Saleem Sanford (left) celebrates with Drakkar Frazier (8) after Sanford scored a touchdown against Lemont. | Ray Luna~For Sun-Times Media
A 38-7 defeat isn’t quite the way any coach wants to start the season.
Such a shellacking can severely damage team morale and, additionally, sap energy from a fan base yearning to experience the thrills of winning football.
Welcome to Week 1 of T.F. South football.
Coach Tom Padjen, a year removed from enduring one of the most trying seasons of his 37th year career, wasn’t about to watch this season slip away.
Successful coaches identify problem areas and make corrections.
“We made a lot of changes after the Crete-Monee game,” said Padjen, of the opponent who provided the 37-8 butt-kicking. “We had a lot of question marks going into the season. That’s why you play a team the caliber of Crete-Monee the first game. To see what you need to do.”
For Padjen, that meant moving personnel to different positions, including some to the bench.
Like a master chess player, the moves have worked, restoring a proud T.F. South program back to relevance.
The Rebels, who finished 4-5 in 2011, have won five in a row, including road victories over Tinley Park and Lemont.
Most importantly, T.F. South sits atop the South Suburban Blue Conference, in complete control of its own destiny.
It’s a far cry from last season, when the Rebels began the season 1-5 and failed to qualify for the postseason for just the third time in the last 18 seasons.
“What a difference a year makes,” exclaimed Padjen, whose Rebels upended Lemont 21-20 in Week 6. “At this time last season, we had just lost in overtime to T.F. North and were 1-5. Then we won three straight games, including wins over two playoff teams and that success carried us into this season.”
There are very little similarities between this year and last year’s teams. The most glaring difference: discontent has been replaced by harmony.
“These guys understand the team concept and are very coachable,” Padjen said. “They’re very unselfish and there’s great team chemistry.”
While defeating Lemont, which hadn’t lost a conference game since Week 5 of the 2009 season, was a major step, the previous week’s victory over Tinley Park might have been a season-changer.
Faced with the decision to convert a PAT kick and tie the game or go for the two-point conversion and potential win with 3:20 remaining in the game, Padjen elected to go for the win.
The Rebels converted and pulled out a 22-21 victory.
“We were on the road and with their big (running) back (Preston Thompson), they would give that guy the ball four times and probably he’s going to get three or four years per carry,” said Padjen, rationalizing his decision.
“We had a chance to win the game right there. If you can’t gain three yards, you don’t deserve to win.
“Sometimes those decisions work and there are times when you don’t make the block or the other team steps up and makes the play and stops you. We made the play and then we got the interception to seal the win.”
It was a gutsy call. If the Rebels failed to convert and lose the game, it’s debatable whether they could have gathered themselves and produced the effort required to upend Lemont the following week.
We’ll never know for sure.
What is for certain, however, is that converting and beating Tinley Park provided the boost in confidence and momentum necessary to slay Lemont.
“I think the Tinley Park game definitely helped,” Padjen said. “It’s a funny game. Lemont goes for the field goal with nine second left and we get lucky and the ball goes off the crossbar. The week before against Oak
Forest, Lemont did the same thing and made the field goal and won the game. You never know.”
What is known is that the Rebels are in the driver’s seat in conference.
They have a productive three-headed monster in the backfield with Saleem Sanford, Joe Young and James Bucksath. They have a leader at quarterback in Peyton Padjen, Tom’s nephew.
They have a productive offensive line, led by 6-foot-3, 300-pound giant Sam Kessler.
Defensively, there’s 5-6, 160-pound nose tackle Austin Berryhill and cornerback Drakkar Frazier.
There are unsung heroes like junior Josh Gentry, playing center for the first time in his career; Raphael Canty, who graciously moved from tackle to tight end; and sophomore Adam Kessler, Sam’s brother, who has excelled on the O-line after a promotion to the varsity after the Crete-Monee debacle.
It’s all clicked.
“We control out own destiny,” Padjen said. “You can’t ask for anymore than that.”