If Stevenson head coach Bill McNamara had it his way, none of his Patriots would play on both sides of the ball. The rigors of a Class 8A schedule with teams combining for a 43-30 record — including five playoff-bound teams — an offense that wants to play like the Oregon Ducks and a defense that prides itself on team speed doesn't lend itself to players staying on the field when offense turns to defense and defense turns to special teams.
But that same schedule has meant injuries, bumps and bruises that have added up for a Patriots team that has lost their starting center, left tackle, defensive end, tight end and running back at different points in the season. The result has been key players contributing in all three phases of the game for the betterment of the team, and so far that risk has paid off. McNamara's group has reeled off six straight wins to officially qualify for the IHSA playoffs, the latest coming last Friday night when they knocked off Lake Forest, 20-6, on the road.
"Our players never lost faith. They trust each other, they trust the coaching staff," said McNamara, who admitted he's much calmer at 6-2 than he was at 0-2. "We really have a bond and a unity that helps win football games, and it was just a matter of time before we exploded. We’re putting it together at the right time."
Within that explosion has been the two-way dominance of seven different players, headed by junior Nick Dillon. The three-year varsity starting defensive lineman added "right offensive tackle" to his resume after senior left tackle Zach Novoselsky suffered a broken left fibula and torn ligaments in his left ankle early in the season. Dillon also barks out signals on the punt team and is the heart and soul of the defense, where he's among the team leaders in tackles for loss and sacks.
"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."
Dillon rarely comes off the field, but last Friday night his services on defense weren't needed for but a handful of plays each Lake Forest offensive series. The Scouts entered the game averaging 35.7 points per game — they had only scored fewer than 33 points one time — behind the tough running of Hub Cirame. But the Patriots defense, which hasn't allowed more than 14 points in a game since Week 2, came focused and ready to play.
In the first half, the Scouts managed just six first downs on six series. Cornerback Sam Oriatti corralled two interceptions in the first half (one led to a Cam Green touchdown), and after Patriots quarterback Willie Bourbon threw an interception in his own territory, defensive coordinator Josh Hjorth's group held the Scouts to a field goal after a first-and-goal situation from the 8-yard line.
It was Jason Vravick, who also plays center in place of the injured Henry Sise, controlling the line of scrimmage on runs between the tackles; safety (and wide receiver) Matt Morrissey was everywhere, as he usually is, keeping the Scouts passing attack at bay; Ryan Mass and Jimmy Marchese, who see time at running back and tight end, respectively, teamed with fellow linebackers Itai Gerchikov and Josh Junker to slow down Cirame. Even Green, a star wide receiver, continues to see time at defensive back late in the season.
The two-way players made yet another statement in the win, holding the Scouts to just another field goal in the second half while Bourbon and the offense found the end zone twice more, giving the Patriots more than enough to pick up win No. 6.
"It’s a heck of a lot of heart, it’s a heck of a lot of conditioning," Hjorth said. "We’ve been conditioning since the end of the season last year. Those guys have that opportunity really to play some iron-man football, and it takes a lot of heart to do something like that. They could easily pull themselves out and all those guys ... obviously they’re having a heck of a time and we’re trying to get stronger as the game goes."
Marchese was especially important. While manning the interior on defense, he saw time at tight end for the second straight game in place of the dinged-up Jordan Atkins. Marchese tallied four receptions for 58 yards in the win, including a key 21-yard reception in the third quarter.
"Jimmy has been repping on offense at a number of positions, and he’s a go-to guy whenever we need him," McNamara said. "He stepped up big offensively, and defensively he was really a go-to guy tonight."
Bourbon recovered from his first-quarter interception to throw for 261 yards and three touchdown passes, the final two of which went to safety/wide receiver Morrissey.
The win streak has all been a lead-up to this Friday, when Stevenson (6-2, 5-0) hosts Lake Zurich (8-0, 5-0) for the North Suburban Lake conference championship. The schedule pitted the two best teams in the league to meet up in the final game of the regular season, inevitably creating a playoff-like atmosphere in Lincolnshire.
And for the wins the Patriots have picked up thus far — Warren and Lake Forest, most notably — the test they'll face against the Bears will be their stiffest yet. Led by linebacker Colton Moskal — a Syracuse commit — quarterback Noah Allgood and a three-headed running back attack, much like the Patriots run, athletes will be all over the field.
The Bears have allowed just 50 points all season, including a five-week stretch to begin the season in which they allowed 17 points and pitched three shutouts. It won't be an easy task getting past the No. 2 team in the state, but with the conference championship on the line it won't be tough for McNamara's group to get up for this game. Last season the Bears defeated the Patriots, 21-14, in Lake Zurich to earn the conference title outright, so there's also some revenge factor involved.
"Lake Zurich is one heck of a football team in all phases of the game," McNamara said. "They’re going to come ready to play, and we’re going to come ready to play. We’ve really started peaking and hitting our stride; we feel good about what we’re doing right now, and this is going to be like a playoff atmosphere, both stands are going to be filled. It’s going to be lined up around the fences, I’m hoping 8-to-12,000 people.
"It’s going to be a heck of a Friday night."