No football team wants to be in a must-win situation, but Naperville North seems to thrive on the pressure.
Faced with a 1-3 record for the second straight season, last week the Huskies came through with what may end up being a playoff preserving victory. They upset previously unbeaten Wheaton Warrenville South 21-14 to create a bunch of momentum heading into the stretch run of the regular season.
"It's a win our program needs," said Naperville North coach Sean Drendel. "It's a testament to who our kids are."
By going 1-1 in nonconference play the last two years, Naperville North knew it'd have to beat at least one of the other top teams in the conference to qualify for the postseason. Last year the Huskies beat Naperville Central, this year it was the Tigers.
The key now for Naperville North is to not let its guard down during an upcoming stretch of games against Lake Park, Glenbard East and West Aurora -- teams with a combined record of 4-11 -- leading up to the Week 9 showdown against unbeaten Naperville Central.
It's time to build on last week's huge win.
"Some doubt gets in your mind when you start out 1-3, but I saw no doubt in our kids' eyes heading into the Wheaton South game," Drendel said. "Now we need to show that last week wasn't a fluke."
In nine years at the helm, Glenbard North coach Ryan Wilkens said he's never promoted a freshman to the varsity level.
Vittorio Tricase, a 5-foot-6, 160-pound running back and linebacker, has been up on varsity since the Panthers' Week 2 win over Carmel. He played for one half of the sophomore game that night before making his varsity debut with 9 carries for 34 yards.
"We knew he was coming, and we knew heading into the season we'd have him on the sophomore team," Wilkens said. "As a freshman we're just throwing a lot at him, but he's done a great job taking it all in."
Tricase scored his first varsity touchdown on a 50-yard run against Lake Park in Week 4. Last week he carried the ball 13 times for 113 yards and a 54-yard scoring run.
Northwestern recruit Justin Jackson, who already has rushed for 1,229 yards and 17 touchdowns, still has a long season ahead of him as Glenbard North's workhorse. Tricase, however, is offering a nice option.
"His knowledge of the game is what sets him apart," said Wilkens, whose defense relies on Tricase playing linebacker in certain situations. "He's a smart player. He just gets it."
There's no denying the disappointment of starting a season with five straight losses. For all intents and purposes, any hopes of a postseason berth are over.
For winless Addison Trail, though, it doesn't mean the season's over.
"We can pout about being 0-5, but that's the hand we've been dealt," said Addison Trail coach Paul Parpet. "The bottom line is you still get the chance to go out there and compete four more times."
The Blazers entered the season with hopes of making the playoffs and challenging for the West Suburban Gold title. A junior-heavy lineup, however, has struggled through inconsistency.
In last week's loss to Hinsdale South, Addison Trail scored first but couldn't extend the lead. Four sustained drives failed to produce points.
Finishing drives will be one of the many focal points heading into the Blazers' stretch run.
"It's high school football and you've got to play the game, not the score," Parpet said. "We need to gain some momentum these last four games going into the off-season."
Five games in, Montini coach Chris Andriano can more accurately assess the Broncos' defense.
"They're the fastest group of kids we've ever had," said the 35-year coach. "They all run well, they all pursue well and they're all coached well, so our coaches do a great job. All three levels of football -- defensive line, linebackers, secondary. This is a special group. I think it's the best we've ever had. Time will tell. I think we've got to see how they play in some of these games."
Thus far Montini has allowed 35 points, no more than St. Francis' 7 since Montini's opening 21-19 win over Maine South.
There are renowned players like linebacker Nile Sykes and Ohio State recruit defensive end Dylan Thompson, who Andriano ranks with 2008 graduate and Ohio State product Garrett Goebel as the program's best linemen.
"You can't trap him, you can't hook block him, you can't throw it over him," Andriano said of Thompson. "It's hard for quarterbacks to get outside of him, he's got speed and good pursuit angles, you can't double-team him -- he's too big and strong -- and he's very hungry."
Among many outstanding players, there are surprises such as senior defensive back Jeremy Giderof, Ohio transfer defensive end Eric Kibbey, new contributors such as linebacker Connor Economou, steady performers like cornerback Josh Belt and third-year linebacker Mike Maduko.
"You can't beat us consistently with any one thing," Andriano said. "I think we're going to see some different things, obviously, over the next couple weeks with Marian Central and Aurora Christian. Those will be big games."
'Cats vs. birds:
After what he called West Chicago's best practice of the year on Tuesday, Wildcats coach Bill Bicker hopes to return senior Mike Favia for Friday's homecoming game against the neighboring Bartlett Hawks.
Getting the 6-foot-2, 220-pound defensive end back on the field after a Week 1 injury improves the Wildcats' defense in more ways than one.
"He makes us better," Bicker said. "You have kids step up in his absence and they get better."
Such as another senior, Jesus Carrasco. Bicker said he's going to find a way to get the 6-foot, 225-pounder on the defensive line at the same time as Favia.
Bicker continues to praise program mainstays Colin and Jordan Lelito, the twin receiver-quarterback combo; and tailback Danny Lazzerini.
"The kid plays hard every single down of every single football game," Bicker said of Lazzerini, who leads West Chicago in rushing and touchdowns.
West Chicago may be winless, but that's not how Bicker measures success.
"The important things make it easy," he said. "The important things are I work with great kids. The important things are I work with great teachers."
From YouTube videos to stats to eyewitness account, people know how good Neuqua Valley receiver and Illinois recruit Mikey Dudek is.
"There's no one better," Wildcats coach Bill Ellinghaus said.
There's not many better this season at his position than the guy getting Dudek the ball, quarterback Broc Rutter. Set back by injury this summer, the junior came out of a three-man quarterback competition to rank among the area's finest.
Through five games Rutter has completed 66 percent of his passes for 1,054 yards, 15 touchdowns, 2 interceptions. His efficiency rating of 227.75 is more than 30 points higher than that of Dylan Andrew, who last season set the program record at 190.36 along with the team completion percentage mark of 60.9 percent.
"Broc's very much like Dylan. There are a lot of similarities," Ellinghaus said. "Another thing you've got to take into consideration, too, is that's the kind of style and the kind of quarterback I'm looking for. We want a quarterback who can make all the throws but ... we work hard to make sure he understands reads and if it's not there to throw the ball out of bounds."
Dudek's 4.4 speed and desire obviously help Rutter's numbers, but opposing defensive schemes have been "a little unconventional," Ellinghaus said. He credited Rutter's ability to diagnose a defense, as well as a number of receivers willing to run full routes, block and simply be ready to make a catch -- Ryan Kuhl, Nate Hill, Alex Teresky, Evan Moore, Charlie Hunter, Jordan Maclin.
"We've got an all-star wide receiver in Mikey Dudek and we've got other receivers flat-out busting it every single play," Ellinghaus said.