The 2013 Stevenson Patriots' 'amazing journey'

The 2013 Stevenson Patriots' 'amazing journey'

November 30, 2013, 11:15 pm
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Mark Strotman

It's not difficult to measure what the Stevenson Patriots accomplished in 2013.

More than 4,000 yards of offense. A defense that allowed 11.3 points, totaled 25 sacks and intercepted 24 passes in 13 games. Two All-State performers, 10 wins, a conference championship and a trip to the Class 8A semifinal for the third time in school history.

The what is easy; the how is important.

And how head coach Bill McNamara's group transformed from a group of talented individuals searching for an identity to one of the elite teams in Illinois was a script only the most accountable and self-driven student-athletes and dedicated coaching staff could have written.

[DRIVE: Accountability drives Stevenson success]

That voyage ended last Saturday at the hands of top-ranked Loyola -- the Ramblers converted a two-point conversion with 63 seconds remaining to earn a 15-14 victory -- just one lone minute from a trip to DeKalb. And yet, through his disappointment, frustration and disbelief -- emotions shared by his tearful group of players -- McNamara took a deep breath and smiled when asked how he will remember the 2013 Patriots.

"An amazing journey," McNamara said. "The character these kids had in response to the adversity they had here, it was just amazing. Those kids were champions."

And to figure out how the Stevenson Patriots accomplished so much, one must start at the beginning.

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Senior left tackle Zach Novoselsky paced the sidelines, glancing at the scoreboard over and over, each time in more disbelief than the last.

The Patriots had just turned the ball over for the eighth time at Kenosha Indian Trail and were losing 15-14. This wasn't the start the eighth-ranked team in Illinois was supposed to have. An offense with a handful of future Division I players and a defense built on speed and depth was supposed to roll through the non-confernce portion of their season, using an offseason that began the Monday after Thanksgiving to propel them forward in the early going.

"Why is this happening?" Novoselsky, a Western Michigan commitment, belted out in frustration, hoping anyone could answer the question he never thought he'd be asking, let alone in August.

That frustration carried over into Week 2, when the Patriots allowed a late kick return for a touchdown to Homewood-Flossmoor in a 28-21 loss, dropping the world beaters to 0-2 and searching for more answers, attempting not to allow the confidence they had built up in the offseason to disappear forever.

As the team shuffled quietly into the Stevenson weight room -- the Patriots meet there after every game because that's where the season begins in the offseason -- McNamara asked his group a simple question: How do we respond?

They responded well thanks to a soft spot in their schedule, allowing them a bit of a breather. Or so they thought.

In the first half of Stevenson's Week 3 win over Zion Benton, Novoselsky suffered a broken left fibula and torn ligaments in his ankle. He joined starting center Henry Sise, who broke his leg in Week 1, on the sideline, and forced McNamara's offense to play a round of musical chairs with an offensive line that had four new starters to begin with.

So McNamara asked standout linebacker Jason Vravick to play both ways at center, moved star defensive end Nick Dillon to right tackle and brought up sophomore Cade Gilbert to defend quarterback Willie Bourbon's blind side at left tackle.

[DRIVE: Stevenson offense hits stride at perfect time]

The new offensive line did wonders. For three weeks -- wins over Zion Benton, Libertyville and Vernon Hills -- the Patriots rushed for 949 yards behind the three-headed monster of Jack Joseph, Conor Okmin and Tim Vestuto and gave Bourbon the time to throw for 478 yards and six touchdowns -- he didn't throw an interception in that span after throwing six in two losses to begin the season.

“When you see all these guys going down, you know if one guy goes down you’ve got another guy that can come in,” Bourbon said after a Week 5 win over Vernon Hills. “So it’s good when you know you have three or four guys that can get yards. When you have versatility like that it’s great.”

Bourbon also had the privilege of throwing to wide receivers Matt Morrissey and Cameron Green, the Patriots' two All-State athletes who made opposing secondaries shudder watching film, and made those same secondaries chase from behind after the pair inevitably got behind the last line of defense.

A well-balanced attack set up the Patriots perfectly heading into a stretch of play against three eventual playoff teams and conference contenders.

And as McNamara's offense reshuffled its cards and found stability, Morrissey, Dillon and the defense were busy in the toolshed.

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Don't ask defensive coordinator Josh Hjorth why he's unable to relax for even a moment on game day. The answer can only be seen in the defense in which he takes the utmost pride.

It begins during the National Anthem, when the animated coach hops around in anticipation before sprinting down the sideline as the crowd erupts for the final verse. And it continues until the final tick of the game clock.

“This is something that’s built up over years,” Hjorth said. “We want to be known for our defense."

Dillon said early in the season that he wanted the Patriots to be considered elite, and they did that by "tightening the wrench."

A three-word motto that packed a punch worth a thousand.

At its core, the phrase meant that the Stevenson defense would improve every day -- "tighten" the wrench one click every day until the fastener can't be turned anymore -- behind meaningful repetitions in practice, additional film study and faith in the man standing next to him in the huddle.

There's plenty of places to start, but the middle is the surest bet.

A trio over undersized yet never out-worked senior linebackers, Itai Gerchikov (94 tackles, 6 sacks), Josh Junker (87 tackles, 4 TFL) and Ryan Mass (53 tackles, 2 interceptions) teamed up with Vravick (93 tackles, 4 forced fumbles) and two-way starter Jimmy Marchese (55 tackles, 6 TFL) to create an impeccably accountable group in which Hjorth gave his full trust.

[DRIVE: Stevenson defense continues to 'tighten the wrench']

This deep group of linebackers filled the holes created by a defensive line led by Dillon, the 6-foot-2 junior whose dominant play on the field was topped only by his heart-felt passion and enthusiasm that he passed on to the other 10 players on the field. Rory Koenig filled in for the talented yet injury-prone Patrick O'Connell, and Blake Drazner and Zach Kozub acted as vital stopgaps inside. Even cornerback Sam Oriatti, perhaps the most underrated defender on the squad, contributed in a big way all year long.

And Dillon's passion exploded in a four-week stretch in which the Patriots defense was as good as any team in the state.

In Week 6 Hjorth's group held a Warren offense, averaging 36.2 points at the time, to seven points.

In Week 7 the Lake Forest Scouts, averaging 35.6 points through six weeks, managed a pair of field goals as the Patriots moved to 5-2 with a 20-6 win.

And though the wrench was tightened heading into a Week 9 matchup with Lake Zurich, the amazing journey added another chapter with a conference title on the line.

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McNamara coaches football for the student-athletes.

Though his X's-and-O's brain and incredible passion combine to make him a prime candidate to lead one of the best programs in Illinois, he admitted proudly multiple times during the season that he's at Stevenson to provide special moments and memories for the players who devote endless hours to the cause.

And no moment was more special than the Patriots' 24-17 win over the Bears to earn the outright North Suburban Lake championship.

But it didn't come without adversity. Facing a 17-0 hole just 10 minutes into the game, a Kevin Pearson blocked punt flipped the script and got the Patriots on the board after Mass snatched the ball out of the air and ran untouched for a score. Bourbon, facing the state's best statistical defense, added another score before halftime and added the go-ahead score out of halftime behind the bulldozing tactics of Joseph, who came on late as Stevenson's go-to running back beside the dual-threat Bourbon.

A Marchese interception on the game's final play sealed the conference title and gave the Patriots one of the two goals they set out for during the summer.

“We put our goals up at the beginning of the season on the board, and the first one’s conference champs; the second one is state champs,” Bourbon said after the Lake Zurich win. “So we check one off the list and we’re on to the next one.”

[DRIVE: Patriots walk, then run to conference championship]

Seven straight wins after an 0-2 start wasn't unheard of or even unexpected, given the talent on the roster and the work put in by the coaching staff. But it wouldn't have been possible without each player holding themselves accountable and realizing that the sum of those individual efforts could create a special team.

And though it won't show up on any box scores, the principle behind each player realizing their role was McNamara's tradition of "taking a moment for yourself." Before and after every game, McNamara asks his team to silently reflect on everything that has happened and everything that's going to happen, readying themselves for the immediate task at hand.

Another one of McNamara's favorite phrases also took center stage as the second season rolled around.

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"Playmakers making plays."

It's a simple concept, but on a team as talented as Stevenson's it meant even more when McNamara uttered it to his squad each week.

Bourbon, Morrissey and Green dominated during the regular season, coming up in clutch spots, overpowering opponents and changing on the go as injuries and adversity flew by them.

Bourbon amassed 22 total touchdowns, Green averaged 18.7 yards per catch and caught eight touchdowns and Morrissey finished with 80 tackles and five interceptions on defense and  caught eight touchdowns with 661 receiving yards in the regular season.

But in the playoffs, the trio flipped a switch.

In an opening round win over St. Charles East, the sixth-seeded Patriots received 311 all-purpose yards and three passing touchdowns from Bourbon. Two of those touchdowns went to Morrissey, who also totaled 14 tackles and intercepted a ball in the end zone in a 35-7 win.

In the second round, Green was everywhere. He caught two passes for 109 yards, intercepted a pass -- filling in at safety for the Michigan State-bound Morrissey, who strained his hamstring in practice -- and returned a punt return 79 yards for a touchdown with five minutes left to propel Stevenson to a 20-16 win over Justin Jackson and Glenbard North.

[DRIVE: Quick start, dominant finish propels Stevenson to semis]

Against Barrington in the quarterfinals, Bourbon threw two touchdowns -- one to sophomore Jack Sorenson, the stand-in for Morrissey at wide receiver -- and played game manager in the second half amidst two weather delays and ferocious winds and rains.

The trio struggled against Loyola -- Morrissey made his way back onto the field for his final high school game -- but their impact was felt all season. And they were humbled, too. In the three blowout wins earlier in the season, all three were All-American cheerleaders as the second unit found success on the same field they tore up earlier in each game.

"I’m just so darn proud of him," McNamara said of Morrissey. "His leadership, the way he handles things, I wish he was my kid. That’s just how he is. He’s an amazing human being. He gets it done in all aspects of his life and he doesn’t cut corners by any means."

Then there's Dillon.

Words don't describe the effect he had on the Patriots, and his team-high 13 tackles-for-loss (58 total) and resiliency on the offensive line don't do his worth justice. He'll play on Saturdays in two years at whichever college he chooses to attend, and if he doesn't have a future career on Sundays there's no question he has a future in coaching if he so desires. True passion can't be taught, and teammates know when it's fake.

With Dillon, it was real. Every time. Every time he broke down huddles and spoke last in players-only meetings before games, he spoke from the heart. The Patriots walked through the school halls on their way to the field before home games in jersey number-order, except for Dillon. He walked out last, figuratively and literally anchoring the Stevenson group before heading into battle.

"Nick Dillon’s a special kid," McNamara said. "He’s an amazing talent. I call him ‘ND’ because he’s going to go to some place like Notre Dame, or he’s going to go big-time. But he’s an incredible athlete, and he’s got that mentality that he doesn't want to come off the field."

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Sixty-three seconds.

Had Loyola quarterback Jack Penn's throw been an inch higher, had Bourbon and the offense scored on one of the two red-zone attempts they had in the second half, had Morrissey played at full-strength, the Patriots may have been celebrating the first state championship in school history with one more win.

That didn't happen.

Only eight of the 256 teams that qualified for the IHSA state playoffs were crowned champions in DeKalb, and Stevenson was not one of them.

There were tears in that weight room Saturday afternoon, surpassed only by the hugs, smiles and well-wishes seniors shared with each other and the underclassmen who will carry on their legacy.

"There isn’t anything that makes the pain go away right now," McNamara told his team, "but hopefully you understand in your heart how much we care for you, how much we love you guys, and that we would do anything for you guys."

Added Hjorth: "Tomorrow morning it’s going to hurt. And this week it’s going to hurt, and it might hurt past winter break. But somewhere along the line you’re going to wake up one morning and be like, ‘Man, was that worth it. I would do that again any time in my life.’"

Record books, trophy cases, video highlights and a red scooter will tell the story of what the 2013 Stevenson Patriots accomplished.

But that same story, engrained in the hearts and minds of each player and coach, will recall how this special team achieved so much and became champions.