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Stevenson head coach Bill McNamara has stressed two keys to his team all season long: the Patriots must be stout in all three phases of the game – offense, defense and special teams – and they must understand that the game is four quarters long, meaning the Patriots must finish the game as well as they start it.
Cameron Green was listening.
The standout junior had a career day in Stevenson’s 20-16 win over second-seeded Glenbard North in the second round of the 8A state playoffs. Green caught two passes for 109 yards, intercepted a Panthers’ pass in the end zone, and returned a punt return 79 yards for a touchdown with five minutes remaining to put the Patriots ahead for good, completing the trifecta of consistency McNamara strives for each week.
Green enters each contest knowing that his name will be written across the top of each opponent’s scouting report, but the bull’s-eye on his back grew even larger this week when star safety and wide receiver Matt Morrissey suffered a hamstring injury in practice.
Injuries had impacted the Patriots throughout the year — starting left tackle Zach Novoselsky and center Henry Sise suffered season-ending injuries in the first three weeks of the season — but losing the team’s MVP and leader at such a crucial time could have crippled the Patriots on the road against such an opponent.
But like they have done during their now-nine-game win streak, McNamara’s group didn’t miss a beat.
“When it happened there was like a gasp,” McNamara said of Morrissey’s injury in practice. “And then it didn’t take 30 seconds, and we got right back in practice. Our kids were focused, got back in it and just kept on working. And that’s how this team is: very resilient, they take adversity well and they respond.”
Morrissey’s vacancy at safety meant Green and junior James Mahoney would have to step into larger roles. Offensively, Green lost his opposite counterpart on the outside, leaving the Patriots with a talented yet inexperienced sophomore, Jack Sorenson, to try and fill Morrissey’s 750 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns.
Battling windy conditions and the loss of Morrissey, McNamara’s offense began the game with two rushes before Bourbon rolled out on third down and hit a streaking Green for a 41-yard gain. Later in the drive Bourbon found Sorenson, dubbed “Mini Mo” by his teammates, for another third-down conversion, and on the very next play the surging Jack Joseph ran 20 yards for a touchdown to give the Patriots a 7-0 lead.
Green filled the box score, but he also made the key block on Joseph’s run, pinning his man— inside to allow Joseph the edge and pay dirt.
“When you come out of the gates and you hit them in the mouth, it’s big when you put the first points on the board,” Bourbon said. “You get a little confidence and, you know, our defense has been solid all year. When they get that seven-point lead their mindset is, ‘Hey, that’s all we need.’”
All-State running back Justin Jackson had different plans.
The Northwestern-bound athlete scored from 47 and 56 yards in the first quarter to give the Panthers a 14-7 lead, which they maintained into the second quarter as the two teams traded punts to try and turn the windy conditions in their respective favors for a battle of field position — Jackson also fumbled in Stevenson territory in the second half to stall a GBN drive.
But near the end of the first half, the Panthers found themselves inside the red zone following an interception from Bourbon. After seven straight rushes to Jackson, quarterback Brett Gasiorowski tried to catch the Patriots off-guard, but Green was waiting for yet another moment to shine, reading the route, deflecting the pass and scooping his left hand underneath the ball just before it hit the black end zone turf.
As the team shuffled into the locker room, McNamara, the team’s offensive play-caller, had a clear message: Win the second half, win the game.
Defensive coordinator Josh Hjorth and his unit heard the message loud and clear.
The Patriots defense, which hasn’t allowed an opponent to score more than 17 points since Week 2, came out firing in the second half. A key halftime adjustment to crash down on the edges to contain Jackson worked perfectly, as the All-State running back rushed for just 12 yards on eight rushes in the third quarter. Defensive linemen Nick Dillon, Zack Kozub and Blake Drazner helped fill in on GBN's power plays, with a quick set of linebackers ready to fill the gaps.
Keeping Jackson in check on first and second downs forced the Panthers into passing situations on third downs, and on the first drive of the second half Jason Vravick flushed Gasiorowski out of the pocket and forced a fumble, which the Patriots recovered.
“The way they played in the second half, they wanted that,” Hjorth said of his defense. “And it was unbelievable, I’m very proud of all of them. Justin Jackson is a heck of a player. He is unbelievable and it’s been a challenge and a pleasure to coach against him for three years.”
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Bourbon and the offense pounced on the defense’s takeaway, rushing 10 times for 51 yards on an 11-play drive, capped off by a Bourbon keeper from 1-yard out, to tie the game at 14.
But for as good as the third quarter was for the Patriots, the fourth quarter began in worst-case fashion.
A holding call on first down pinned the Stevenson offense back into its own territory, and on fourth-and-long an awry snap rolled past the punter Joseph, who was able to pounce on the ball in the end zone, resulting in a safety and a 16-14 Patriots lead.
A 42-yard run by Jackson on the Panthers’ next drive put them in prime position to take a two-possession lead with nine minutes to play, but Jackson’s second fumble of the game inside the red zone — this time recovered by cornerback Sam Oriatti in the end zone — gave the Patriots new life.
And though the Patriots offense went three-and-out on their possession off the takeaway, the theatrics were just beginning.
Hjorth’s defense stood its ground once again, holding Jackson to nine yards on three carries, creating a fourth-and-one from midfield, giving head coach Ryan Wilkens a decision to ponder.
In what can only be characterized as a proverbial tip of the cap to the way the Patriots defense had been playing, Wilkens opted to punt instead of giving his Division I running back a chance to gain one yard and continue the potential game-winning drive.
Green made sure the Panthers paid.
A line drive punt fell into Green’s arms, the junior cut to his right and went untouched for a 75-yard touchdown in what he called the biggest touchdown of his young football career.
“As soon as I broke that first tackle and bounced it outside, I just ran like my Dad told me: knees up, chin up, and I was gone,” Green said. “I felt like I was just gliding through the air. I was actually thinking, ‘Don’t trip. Just don’t trip.’ It was awesome, going down the sideline with our student section right there.”
The Patriots missed a two-point conversion to keep the lead at just four, but Hjorth’s defense maintained its dominance on the final three possessions of the game, intercepting Gasiorowski twice, with a four-and-out stop sandwiched in between. Jackson finished the game with 265 yards on 35 carries and the two scores, incredibly all below his season averages. In the second half, he rushed for just 72 yards on 14 carries, a testament to the elite Stevenson defense.
As Bourbon took a final knee to run the clock out, the Patriots stormed the field in exuberance, avenging two straight playoff losses to the Panthers and advancing to the quarterfinals in the process.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” linebacker Ryan Mass said after the game. “After losing to these guys two years in a row, a lot of our guys going down, our team just stepped up big and we came out with that win. Our defense knew that one team can’t be one player. It was a whole team versus one player, and we knew we had to shut (Jackson) down, and when we did that everything seemed to fall apart for them.”
Though the Patriots are loaded with talent, the victory was a remarkable one. Losing Morrissey 72 hours before game day, playing without two starting linemen and having two-way starter Jimmy Marchese go down with a knee injury in the second half could have crippled the sixth-seeded Patriots.
But McNamara's group didn’t falter, and a sound game plan carried out by players who have fully bought into it has provided the team momentum that has them feeling they can compete with anyone in the state.
“We keep having injuries and the next guy steps up. Our coaching staff does an unreal job of coaching not just our starters, but our second and third team guys,” Hjorth said. “And we promise them, you might not be playing Week 1, Week 6, Week 7. But somewhere in there you’re going to get your opportunity to shine. Be ready to go.”
For the humble Green, it was a moment to cherish. Though he rarely speaks of his own accolades, his performance was one that will go down in Stevenson lore as one of the biggest and most important in recent memory.
But perhaps the reason why the Patriots continue to succeed is because each player sees individual statistics and highlights as a sum of the team’s togetherness. As they move one step closer to a state title, that’s what will continue moving them forward.