DRIVE: Patriots walk, then run to conference championship

DRIVE: Patriots walk, then run to conference championship

November 1, 2013, 6:45 pm
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Mark Strotman

It’s a quiet walk, but it speaks volumes.

The path the Stevenson Patriots take to the field before each home game is symbolic. Following a players-only meeting inside one of the health classrooms, the team marches silently through the school, single-file by jersey number – team leader Nick Dillon, No. 78, goes last – on their way to the field. Scattered along the path are fans, band members and adults who cheer on the Patriots, sending them well-wishes, pats on the back and applause. Throughout it all, though, the Patriots are silent. It’s right in line with head coach Bill McNamara’s mantra of “taking a moment” after every practice and game, allowing the Patriots to be by themselves, if only for a moment, before stepping onto the gridiron where expectations and potential legacies await them.

“It’s been the history of this program, where we walk down there, it’s nice and quiet,” said McNamara, who has been with the program for more than two decades. “People can talk to you, yell at you, but you’re focused, getting dressed and getting ready to play a football game. That’s just part of what we do here.”

Last Friday night the Patriots took that walk, knowing they were minutes away from a clash with Lake Zurich, an undefeated team ranked second in the state thanks to an elite defense and high-octane offense that had outscored its opponents 288-54. A North Suburban Lake conference championship also was on the line, with both the Patriots and Bears having won their five games, respectively, in-conference to that point.

And it didn't take long for the Bears to show why they’re one of the favorites to take home the 7A state championship. A pair of three-and-out possessions and a fumble by the Patriots led to 17 points for the visitors, putting Stevenson in a three-score hole before the first quarter had ended.

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It wasn’t all that different than the start the Patriots had to begin their season, losing two straight games to Indian Trail and Homewood-Flossmoor that dropped them out of the top 25 and state-title talk for the time being. Six straight wins since then had put them back in the top 25 with a potential conference title at stake, but the Bears’ early attack seemed to suck the air out of the entire stadium.

Except for the Stevenson sideline.

Early in summer camp, senior left tackle Zach Novoselsky, one of a handful of future Division I athletes, admitted that, despite the Patriots’ embarrassment of riches at the top of their roster, he knew that at some point in the season it would be those players not preparing for college football who would spark the Patriots and get them over the hump when they needed it most.

Enter Kevin Pearson.

The 5-foot-11, 175-pound junior has started all nine games at cornerback for the Patriots and, being an athlete, finds himself on just about all of the Patriots’ special teams units.

And on a roster full of future Division I athletes, it was Pearson who gave the Patriots that spark.

On a fourth-and-long on the Bears’ next possession (Stevenson had punted for the third time), Pearson knifed his way through the Lake Zurich punt protection and blocked the kick, which fell right into the arms of linebacker Ryan Mass, who scampered 10 yards for the score to get the Patriots on the board.

“The team was feeling down and I felt like I needed to step up,” Pearson said. “A lot of adrenaline building up inside me, just ran up and jumped as high as I could and blocked it.”

From then on it was all Patriots. The two teams traded punts twice before Stevenson took over with 1:13 left in the half on their own 17-yard-line. Patriots quarterback Willie Bourbon had thrown eight straight incompletions to open the game – in part because they went against a strong wind in the first quarter – but put together a spectacular drive to end the half, completing 4-of-6 passes for 78 yards to get Stevenson down to the 5-yard-line with less than 30 seconds to play.

Out of a timeout, Bourbon spread out the offense and handed off to running back Jack Joseph – who fumbled on the second possession – who went untouched for a five-yard-score, cutting the deficit to three, 17-14, right before half.

“It set a big tone for the other team that we’re still coming at you,” wide receiver Cam Green said. “We’re not going to give up this game. We’re fighting for a win.”

Fight they did. After Lake Zurich went three-and-out after halftime, the Patriots offense rode Joseph for 42 yards on six carries and a touchdown as part of a 78-yard-drive that gave the Patriots the lead.

The 220-pound Joseph, who has seen his production increase after Tim Vestuto was lost to an ankle injury, finished with 73 yards on 17 carries.

“We definitely knew we had to come with the run game, because in the run game that sets up the pass game. I’ve got to give props up front, the line, without the line I wouldn’t be able to do anything,” he said. “Sometimes it catches them off guard when they give some quick hitters to me and I do what I can do with yards after first contact.”

Added McNamara: “Once he gets going he finds those openings, he’s got good vision and he’s a North-South runner. Once he saw that trap he knew where the end zone was and he wasn’t going to be denied tonight.”

The offense got rolling, but the defense was just as good. The Lake Zurich offense entered Friday night having committed just three turnovers, but in the second half alone Stevenson forced the Bears into three giveaways.

First it was Josh Junker, who fell on a Ben Klett fumble. After a Mike Gambino field goal pushed the Patriots’ lead to 24-17, Mass was on the receiving end of an errant screen pass to give the Patriots possession again.

“In big games you can’t turn the ball over and win,” McNamara said. “Turnovers not only are demoralizing for a team, but it’s a loss of field position. And so we were playing the short field most of the second half and their turnovers gave us those opportunities.”

The Bears got inside the Patriots’ 40 in the last minute of the game, but linebacker Jimmy Marchese intercepted a pass on the final play of the game to seal the victory and a conference championship.

Seven weeks ago the Patriots walked dejectedly into their locker room after a second straight loss, not knowing if the season most of them had been looking forward to their entire lives had been lost.

Nearly two months after that date, that same locker room was filled with hugs, smiles and a sense of accomplishment. Seven straight wins will do that for a team.

“Those guys know when they get it rolling that they could be very explosive,” McNamara said. “And that’s the scary thing about this football team, is if we could just be that explosive on a more consistent level, we could be out of this world.”

The journey isn’t done yet. The NCAA Tournament set-up McNamara gave to his team after the Week 2 defeat came to fruition; the Patriots “survived and advanced” for seven straight weeks to earn the outright conference championship.

Now it’s on to the real tournament, the 8A state playoff tournament. Up first is a matchup with St. Charles East at home on Saturday.

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

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It’s a quiet walk, but it speaks volumes.

There’s enough talent on the Patriots roster to win a handful of games, and they’re accountable enough to fight for a conference championship. It’s impossible to know how much that players-only meeting does to get the Patriots ready. Maybe that walk through the school is just a Point A to Point B.

But maybe, just maybe it’s something more than that. After all, it’s what one of the most accomplished programs in Illinois is founded on.

“We try to give them some special time where they can come together and bond, become a family and get themselves ready and prepared to play a football game,” McNamara said. “[Tonight] we got better and we’re playing pretty good football right now.”

It's a quiet walk, but the Patriots are making some serious noise.