River Forest picks Joe O'Connell as new football coach

Merrillville quarterback D.J. Wilkins, Jr. is comforted by assistant coach Joe O'Connell after a tough loss in 2015. O'Connell had been the Pirates offensive coordinator since 2012. O'Connell was named as River Forest's new football coach on Tuesday night.

John J. Watkins, file, The Times

During the interview process at River Forest, Joe O'Connell heard quite a bit about the Ingots' rivalry with Lake Station.

He said it was joked about but also quite sincere.

"I was told that that is a must-win game," O'Connell said on Wednesday afternoon.

Tuesday night he was picked as River Forest's new football coach, replacing Austen Robison, who was 13-18 in three seasons on the job before resigning.

O'Connell played quarterback for Kirk Kennedy at Lowell before graduating in 2000. He helped lead the Red Devils to the 1999 Class 4A semistate. He attended Ball State for his undergraduate and masters degrees, before starting coaching at Merrillville in 2010.

He became the Pirates offensive coordinator in 2012 and held that position through last season. Merrillville made it to the 2012 Class 5A semistate.

But moving from the big-school stage to the small-school one could be an adjustment for O'Connell, but he's ready for the challenge.

"First of all football is supposed to be fun," he said. "When kids want to play they talk to their friends and get them to come out, too. Winning is fun, too, and I expect to win.

"I've heard nothing but great things about the kids at River Forest."

O'Connell spoke highly of Merrillville's administration — principal Mike Krutz, athletic director Janis Qualizza and assistant AD Amy Beckham — and how they supported the football program.

"It was a fun place to work," O'Connell said. "The big games, the atmosphere of all those big games we played in, that was something really special."

He also spoke highly of the administration at River Forest — superintendent Steve Disney, principal Ryan Pitcock and athletic director Andrew Wielgus — for being a big part on why he chose to make the move.

"I plan on running similar things to what we did at Merrillville," he said. "That will be the gist of what we'll look like. We want to utilize our athletes and get them into open field."

O'Connell has friendships with former Lake Station coaches Rich Lunsford and Adam Hudak. So even when he was coaching in the Duneland Athletic Conference, he understood the River Forest-Lake Station rivalry.

"The schools are so close, it's real big," he said. "Yeah, I have an understanding about what it's all about."

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Sports reporter

Steve has won awards during two different stints at The Times. In addition to being the Prep Beat columnist, he covers football, boys basketball and boys track. He is a long-suffering Cubs fan.