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Nick Dillon roams the Stevenson football field on Day 1 of practice with a careful eye. The 6-foot-2 junior dons a pair of white Under Armour cleats, a bright yellow helmet and a green practice jersey while patrolling the middle of the Patriots defense, but he might as well be wearing a whistle around his neck and have a practice plan stuffed into the back of his shorts like the coaches around him, too.
As the team splits up by position to begin its offensive walkthrough, Dillon detects something is out of sorts. As he jogs across the field, he observes two teammates joking around, not lined up with both feet on the sideline like they’ve been instructed to do.
“If you’re not in,” Dillon barks out to the pair in a mild yet direct demeanor, “make sure you’ve got both feet on the line. Let’s go.”
It’s a small correction that didn’t change anything that day. But Dillon and his teammates’ hope is that kind of accountability will pay dividends later on in the year, when the team battles for a 25th straight playoff appearance and an 8A state championship.
“Where we want to go, everything has to be perfect,” Dillon, Stevenson’s All-Area defensive tackle, told CSNChicago.com. “We like to have everything set in stone. I like to keep guys in line, staying behind the line, not fooling around, not talking, but focusing on the game. You have a lot of time to fool around, just not on the football field.”
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It’s little moments such as that one that can make a good team a great team, and a great team a state champion. It’s defensive coordinator Josh Hjorth not moving on with his film session until he hears the correct answer on an assignment question from every one of his players, not just the ones who will lead the Patriots in tackles and interceptions. It’s defensive line coach Dave Whitson telling All-Area wide receiver Cameron Green to put in his mouth guard during 7-on-7, even though it’s a non-contact drill.
And it’s fellow position players talking to each other during film sessions and individual drills about what the right calls and movements are on any given play that have head coach Bill McNamara excited about where his team is heading, because his team is doing the brunt of the work on its own.
“When players are teaching players, then you’ve got it lit,” the fourth-year head coach said, “because that’s the component that tells you we are now a team. That’s a great thing when they’re helping each other out.”
It’s a process that is formed far before the team steps onto the field for practice. Each year the previous teams’ leaders select new players to participate in a leadership program led by Hjorth. These classes allow the hand-picked players to learn about teamwork and how to handle adverse situations that will inevitably arise during the season. Its results are seen in winter weightlifting, spring running and summer fine-tuning. And now that the season has arrived, its results are seen in the team self-coaching and teaching each other.
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“It’s coaches to players, players to coaches, players to players,” senior Zach Novoselsky, the team’s left tackle bound for Western Michigan next year, said, “because it means something when a coach says something to a player, but when a player coaches a player it means even more.”
That transition is made easier by the abundance of experienced players – the roster is littered with third-year varsity juniors and fourth-year varsity seniors. Included in that list is Green, who caught 31 passes for 516 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore on last’s year varsity squad.
Having a year of varsity experience gave Green invaluable knowledge of what to expect for the upcoming season. That made it second nature for him to start a group-text over the summer, where a message as simple as, “Hey let’s meet up, get some work in” resulted in quarterback Willie Bourbon – a fellow two-year varsity junior – and a handful of backs and receivers meeting up to get in extra repetitions.
“I’m going to help them out with what I know or anything that they need help with, and if I see it I’m gonna help them out,” Green said. “And hopefully if they see something that I do wrong they’ll help me out too. We’re all together, we play as a group, as a family, so being together all the time really helps us play more together on the field and it helps us play to our fullest potential.”
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Those extra reps paid dividends early. McNamara’s plan to install one-third of the offense each of the first three days of practice was possible only because the players were ready to go full tilt the moment they stepped onto the field. Just an hour into the first practice of the year, McNamara already was in game-form, signaling in plays from the sideline to Bourbon, who ran the majority of them seamlessly.
“Coaches definitely told us the whole summer when we come back in August there’s no faults, we’ve got to hit the ground running,” Michigan State-bound safety Matt Morrissey said. “We only get so many practices, and our game’s coming up, so we can’t afford any mistakes now.”
The Patriots weren’t perfect – McNamara noted the importance of understanding he’s still dealing with 18-year-old kids, albeit athletic ones – and mistakes were made. But just like Dillon did earlier that day, nearly every wrong route, missed assignment or broken play was followed by a guiding hand and direction from a fellow player or coach. Just the way McNamara wants it.
“Guys are talking to each other,” McNamara said. “If someone doesn’t understand their responsibility there’s a guy right next to him that knows exactly what he’s supposed to do and he tells them. They work together very well as a team. I’m very pleased with that.”