Last summer, St. Charles East's Joe Hoscheit had a big decision to make. Should he opt to play baseball or football in college? It wasn't an easy decision. But it wasn't as difficult as losing to three unbeaten teams in one season.
"I like both sports equally," Hoscheit said. "But I started to get recruiting attention for baseball. Northwestern offered first. Then Valparaiso. I was talking to Air Force and Wright State. Size-wise, I felt I had a better opportunity to play baseball.
"In football, I got a lot of letters but no offers. I didn't go to any combines. I had my mind set on baseball as I began to get recruiting attention so I went with it. Baseball was a better fit. I knew I wouldn't get much bigger and I'd have to get faster to play football. I had a chance to go farther in baseball."
So Hoscheit accepted a scholarship to Northwestern. He'll play outfield and catch for the Wildcats. Last spring, he had a .430 batting average for a conference champion.
"I have more talent in baseball," he said.
He also has the academic skills to compete at Northwestern. He ranks No. 15 in a class of 550 and scored 29 on the ACT. He plans to major in business.
But Hoscheit admits there are things that he experiences on the football field on Friday nights that he doesn't feel in baseball, things he began feeling when he began to play the game in fourth grade, things he will feel on Friday night when St. Charles East plays at Wheaton North in the opening round of the Class 7A playoff.
"It's a family experience in football. There is nothing like the camaraderie, the atmosphere of playing on Friday nights, playing together as a team. You don't get it with baseball," he said.
Hoscheit, a 6-foot, 215-pound senior who starts at fullback and middle linebacker, has emerged as the leader of a 6-3 team that has rebounded from two 3-6 seasons in a row and losses to three unbeaten teams.
Coach Mike Fields is touting Hoscheit for All-State recognition and the Defensive Player of the Year in the Upstate Eight's River Division.
"There is no one like him in our conference. He is a throwback football player. He loves to mix it up," Fields said.
Hoscheit is the Saints' leading tackler. He has rushed 61 times for 300 yards, caught 12 passes and scored 10 touchdowns. In last Friday's 26-0 victory over Elgin Larkin, he rushed nine times for 102 yards and scored on runs of 32 and 12 yards. He also set up another touchdown with a 32-yard burst.
He comes off the field only for kickoffs and kick returns.
"I like defense because you hit someone on every play. But I also like to block and carry the ball as a fullback," he said.
After experiencing two 3-6 seasons, Hoscheit and his teammates are having more fun this year, despite losses to unbeaten Cary-Grove, Neuqua Valley and conference rival Batavia. After shaky starts, they felt they played Neuqua Valley and Batavia to a standstill.
"People asked me: 'Why couldn't we play some lesser opponents?' But this is a great group of kids. They proved they can play with anyone. They aren't intimidated by anyone. I'm excited by what our kids are doing. They are competing and that's all you can ask for as a coach. Everybody is dinged up and tired at this time of the year but we're still getting better," Fields said.
He wasn't so positive after going 3-6 last year.
"We had some opportunities but couldn't finish. We could have been 5-4 easily. But it didn't work out. We couldn't capitalize on opportunities. But these kids have turned close games and opportunities into victories," the coach said.
"Our juniors and seniors have meshed well together. There aren't a lot of I's but a lot of we's on this team. The kids have bought into the idea that team comes first. Even with only five returning starters, our goals were to compete for the conference title and qualify for the playoff for the first time since 2009 and we did it.
"I've been coaching for 18 years (the last four as head coach at St. Charles East) and each team is different. But this is one of the best groups I've had. They care about each other. They don't want to let anyone down. They have bought into the team concept."
The offense is led by Hoscheit, 6-foot-1, 195-pound junior tailback Erick Anderson, 6-foot, 180-pound junior quarterback Jimmy Mitchell, 6-foot-1, 205-pound senior tight end Andrew Szyman, 5-foot-9, 165-pound junior wide receiver Mitch Munroe and 6-foot, 195-pound senior guard Ian Crawford.
Anderson, who missed four games with a shoulder injury and pulled groin, is the leading rusher with 440 yards. He averages five yards per carry and also has caught seven passes for 125 yards. The Saints are 5-1 with Anderson in the lineup. Mitchell has passed for 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Defensively, Hoscheit, Szyman at end, Munroe at cornerback, 6-foot, 185-pound junior linebacker Michael Candre and 5-foot-11, 180-pound senior safety Anthony Sciarrino are the mainstays.
"In each of the last two years, we started 0-5. It put a damper on our mood. We lost games we shouldn't have lost. We weren't finishing games. The teams could have come together more," Hoscheit said.
"This year the juniors and seniors are a tight knit group. Losing to those three unbeaten teams was tough but we won games we should have won. Every person has each other's back, no matter if you're playing or not. Everybody is upbeat about the team and the program.
"We're not doing anything different, the coaches tell us, but the difference (between this team and the last two years) is the players are capitalizing on opportunities this year and finishing games. It's a terrible feeling to have two losing seasons in a row."
Hoscheit wears No. 34 because his grandfather and older brother once wore the same number. The fact that Walter Payton also wore No. 34 is a bonus, he said. He leads by example, not vocally. And he insists he didn't have any personal goals going into the season.
"Sure, I dreamed about playing pro baseball and pro football. But realistically I realize I'm not at that level yet. I have to keep working to have a chance to be there," he said. "But it's awesome for the coach to think I'm good enough to be defensive player of the year in the conference."
It isn't by accident. Hoscheit credits his past two years of varsity experience and his hard work for reaching such stature...getting used to the speed of the game, watching miles of film, studying each opponent, reading keys, preparing to make plays.
So how has he been preparing for Wheaton North?
"We need to have our best week of practice, mentally and physically. We haven't been perfect yet. But this needs to be perfect. We have to play a team game and play four quarters," he said.