MAPLE PARK – The Kaneland football team's offense has been elite for years. The Knights' defense has caught up in recent seasons, and Gary Koehring has been right in the middle of that development.
A three-year starter, the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Koehring relishes his role as the unquestioned leader of the Knights' defense at middle linebacker.
"You get to be the leader of the defense, and you get to hit people, which is the best part of football," Koehring said. "A lot of intimidation factor. I like being the enforcer."
The Knights will need all the swagger they can muster on Saturday night as Kaneland (9-1) visits one of the state's most highly regarded programs, Joliet Catholic (9-1), in an IHSA Class 5A second-round playoff matchup.
Kaneland coach Tom Fedderly said Koehring has been at his best this season, buoyed by a fierce Knights defensive line that has enabled Koehring to play down-hill football.
"Last year he had over 100 tackles and I think he's at like 95 right now, and that's with a couple games when he was hurt earlier, so he's going to have back-to-back 100 tackle seasons, which is awesome," Fedderly said.
Fedderly pegged Koehring as a legitimate all-state candidate. He had the body-type to warrant being called up as a sophomore, and his wealth of varsity experience from the past three years is paying off handsomely.
"He's a really smart football player," Fedderly said. "He's been an academic all-state kid last year, he's got over a 4.0 [grade point average]. So he's a real physical kid, he's a quick kid and he's a smart kid."
Koehring's presence was especially crucial for the Knights this year considering linebacker was one of the Knights' least experienced positional groups. But a linebacking corps that also includes Ty Carlson (two interceptions last week against Hampshire), Cole Carlson, Dan Hammermeister and Sam Bower has progressed nicely.
The Knights' linebackers have done their part for a Kaneland defense that has limited opponents to 20 or fewer points in nine of the Knights' 10 games, including a Round 1 shutout win over the Whip-Purs last Friday.
"I've liked it a lot," said Koehring, of Kaneville. "Since I've been on varsity, we've gotten better on defense each year. My sophomore year we were a bit shaky, we were really young. Last year we really stepped up, had a lot of experience – we were pretty good on defense.
"And then this year, everyone's just really stepped up and kind of taken the defense as our own part of the team and made it something fun to be part of."
Saturday's showdown in Joliet offers a prime opportunity for Koehring and Co. to make a statement that would resonate across Illinois.
The Hilltoppers run a bruising, double-wing offense that few defenses are equipped to handle. Koehring intends to see to it that the Knights become an exception.
"You definitely have to see the pulling guards, and you've got to get off blocks – that's the main thing," Koehring said. "They're going to come after you, so you can't stay blocked, otherwise you're just going to make it easy for them to run."