Lyons Township was 2-4 after crushing losses to West Suburban Silver rivals Hinsdale Central 24-20 and Oak Park 35-34 in Weeks 5 and 6. Star running backcornerback Matthew Harris had missed the last three games with a bruised lung. The team physician wouldn't let him play.
One more loss and Harris and his teammates would be handing in their equipment and looking to the off-season. But the four team captains--Harris, Nick Demes, Connor Onion and Billy Cramsie--weren't about to call it quits.
"After the Oak Park game, all of the captains looked at each other and began to talk. I talked to the other captains in the locker room. Later, we called each other that night," Harris said.
"We asked ourselves: 'What can we do differently?' Our job is to lead the team. We had to take it upon ourselves to show leadership. We worked too hard to not make it to the playoff. We had to put in more work. We had to trust in each other and trust in the coaches to get the job done.
"We didn't know what the problem was. But we knew everyone wasn't giving their all. The players needed to step it up, on the field and in practice. We had to make sure everyone was doing the right thing and, if not, call them out on it."
Walking on the sideline during the Oak Park game, Harris noticed something that bugged him. "As a team, we couldn't come up with a big play that we needed at the right time," he said.
At a team meeting before the next practice, the captains aired their feelings. "We made sure we had a lot of energy at practice, a game-like situation. We fed off a high intensity practice. We knew we couldn't lose another game and get into the playoff," Harris said.
Win or go home? Isn't that a lot of pressure? "Not that much. We knew we would play some good teams but we knew we hadn't played to our highest potential yet. If we play at our best, it is pretty hard to top our team. Our best game of the year is yet to come," Harris said.
In the wake of Lyons' recent four-game winning streak, capped by last Friday's stunning 34-28 upset of highly rated Marist, Harris' projection is scary. The La Grange school will travel to challenge another favorite, O'Fallon (8-2), on Saturday night in the second round of the Class 8A playoff.
Against Marist, Lyons built a 13-point halftime lead, extended its margin to 34-14 midway in the fourth quarter, then held off the fast-finishing RedHawks. Harris scored on a 50-yard return of an interception. Quarterback Zach Mahoney scored once and completed 15 of 25 passes for 236 yards and two touchdowns to Jemari Burks.
"Our seniors took more of a leadership role," Lyons coach Kurt Weinberg said, explaining his team's turnaround. "They became more player driven after losing to Oak Park and being 2-4. They extended themselves in a good way to make sure we got it rolling in the right direction."
Weinberg also noted that the Lions weathered an injury storm. Not only had Harris missed three games but Mahoney missed one. Similar to last year's 7-5 finisher, this year's squad is healthy and playing at its best when it counts the most -- at the end of the season.
"We didn't have the regular season that we wanted to but we got cranked up when we needed to," Weinberg said. "Remember, our conference is the first or second strongest in the state. Six teams qualified for the playoff and were 4-2 in the first round. The West Suburban Silver challenges and prepares you."
The ringleaders are Harris, a 6-foot, 180-pound senior who has been recruited to play cornerback at Northwestern; Demes, a 6-foot-4, 280-pound senior offensive tackle who is committed to Pennsylvania; Onion, a 6-foot, 180-pound senior defensive back; and Cramsie, a 6-foot, 210-pound senior linebacker who also may be headed to the Ivy League.
"They are our catalysts," Weinberg said. "They came out of that team meeting with more fire in their eyes."
Mahoney, a 6-foot-3, 190-pound senior, has completed 70 percent of his passes for nearly 2,000 yards. Leonard Ross, a 6-foot, 190-pound sophomore, was brought up to sub for an injured starter and has amassed 350 yards in only three games.
The defense features Cramsie, Harris, Onion, 6-foot-1, 245-pound senior tackle Jimmy Mitchell, 6-foot-1, 210-pound senior linebacker John Phillipp and 6-foot, 215-pound senior linebacker Patrick Kelley.
"Intensity-wise, Marist was our best game of the year up to now," Harris said. "People saw how much class we have. After knocking down someone, we helped them up. We don't depend on one person to make a big play. We all lean on others to make big plays."
Harris didn't begin to play football until eighth grade. When he was 8 years old, he ran track with his older brother Russell, who went on to become an All-American at Wartburg College in Iowa. Matthew ran sprints and competed in the long jump and hurdles. Last spring, he was fourth in the long jump in the state meet.
In eighth grade, Harris joined the Western Springs youth football team. His best friend's father was the coach. He was aware of Matthew's speed (he was timed in 4.35 seconds for 40 yards at Illinois' camp last summer). Football seemed to be a good sport to exhibit it. Matthew took to it from the first snap.
"I loved it right away. I loved game plans. I loved contact. I loved being the one to make plays. I loved the team aspect," he said. "And I became aware that cornerback is a much coveted position (in college and the NFL). That's why I love it, the challenge. If I am going to get beat, I will come back and try to shut him down on the next play."
He said he chose Northwestern over Wisconsin in early July because it is close to home, it is Chicago's Big Ten school, he is impressed with coach Pat Fitzgerald and his staff and he is thrilled by the family atmosphere.
"It was a real tough decision. Sometimes I would lean to one school, then the other. I took visits to both schools within two days of each other," Harris said. "In the end, I chose Northwestern because of how welcoming they were to me and my family, so sincere."
Now he is focusing on the playoff. He wears No. 11 in memory of his father, who was born on Nov. 11 and died in 2007. "I'm playing for my dad," he said.
"We are clicking at the right time. We haven't played our best game yet. We haven't shined like we should be shining. When we can show how good we are, the more we win. Our record doesn't show how good we are. We have fire but sometimes we fall asleep. We have to make sure we are clicking all the time. We can't take any snaps off. We need to focus all the time."