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Bounce-back year for Riccobene, St. Francis football

St. Francis lineman Keegan Riccobene of St. Charles (72) blocks a teammate during practice at the Wheaton school Thursday afternoon.
St. Francis lineman Keegan Riccobene of St. Charles (72) blocks a teammate during practice at the Wheaton school Thursday afternoon.
Prep Football Week 4 Preview Game of the Week: St. Charles East (3-0, 1-0 Upstate Eight Conference River) at Neuqua Valley (2-1, 1-0 UEC Valley), 7:30 p.m. todayWeek 4 Check-downs

WHEATON – If only St. Francis lineman Keegan Riccobene could promote himself as well as he can block.

Sizing up his college football prospects, the senior played it low-key.

“Obviously, I’m supposed to shoot for the stars when it comes to a dream like that, but hopefully as a walk-on player, maybe, I mean a slim chance of a scholarship, but if it happens, it happens,” Riccobene said. “Anything could happen. We still have [six] weeks, and hopefully we make it to the playoffs.”

The Spartans are looking very much like a playoff team, and Riccobene’s muscle is no small part of the equation. The St. Charles resident has been a key component of a high-caliber offensive line for the Spartans, who put their 3-0 mark on the line tonight against fellow unbeaten and four-time defending 5A state champion Montini.

Riccobene, St. Francis’ right tackle, also has seen substantial time at nose tackle in the early going, but Spartans coach Greg Purnell sounds inclined to have Riccobene focus on his offensive responsibilities as the schedule stiffens in the coming weeks.

“I think as an offensive tackle, it’s been more conducive for him, and the last few games have been pretty warm, and he’s a big man, you know,” Purnell said. “He’s 6-3, close to 300 pounds, so it helps him maybe to just to go one way, but we’ll be using him on defense, also.”

St. Francis appears headed for a major bounce-back season after missing the playoffs in 2012, and it’s similarly been a night-and-day experience for Riccobene on a personal level.

Riccobene’s junior season was marred by a concussion he suffered in practice that caused him anguish on and off the field.

“I was heartbroken,” Riccobene said. “It was really upsetting. I lost a lot of time. I got back and I worked as hard as I could and did what I could. I got playing time toward the last three games but I missed about three games. It was pretty harsh.”

Starting this season alongside fellow St. Charles resident John Vargyas – a guard – on the Spartans’ O-line, Riccobene and Co. have helped Bartlett transfer James Butler make headlines as one of the state’s top running backs in the early going. Butler has already rushed for 547 yards and nine touchdowns in comfortable wins against Riverside-Brookfield, Plainfield South and Chicago Christian.

Riccobene, who attended Elgin Academy before switching to St. Francis for high school, was attracted to St. Francis largely because of the Spartans’ football prowess, although Purnell’s program is in some ways difficult to recognize this season.

Not only is St. Francis playing home games in its gleaming new stadium, but the Spartans have abandoned their Wing-T offense – a long-time Purnell trademark – in favor of opening up the offense. That’s required a steep learning curve for the Spartans’ linemen.

“As a Wing-T offense, every single lineman had a single assignment,” Riccobene said. “It was do this, and you’ll be set. In the spread, when we have our zone blocking scheme, it’s been different. We work as a whole, entire unit. We move as one group where we take a certain step and we move in a certain path. I’ve actually liked it a lot. … I like how we move as an entire line instead of as just one singular block.”

Making the change wasn’t easy for the venerable Purnell, who has ceded control of the offense to new offensive coordinator Jesse Pierce.

“Even though I’ve been a die-hard, Wing-T’er all my life, I felt the change would be good for St. Francis,” Purnell said. “I felt it would be good for the skill kids we have and I also felt that it would be good for St. Francis down the road.

“All young kids want to throw the ball a little bit more now, they want to play a little bit more wide-open offense, so consequently we also feel this will help attract young football players to Francis as well.”

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