Daily Herald's 2017 Season Coverage
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updated: 11/9/2016 10:17 AM

Willowbrook hoping to add to history-making season

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  • Khalif Copeland and his Willowbrook teammates will host East St. Louis on Saturday afternoon in the Class 7A quarterfinals.

      Khalif Copeland and his Willowbrook teammates will host East St. Louis on Saturday afternoon in the Class 7A quarterfinals.
    Paul Michna | Staff Photographer


Every week and every win means more history for Willowbrook's football team.

Imagine if the Warriors stage one of this postseason's biggest upsets by beating perennial power East St. Louis this weekend.

As it is, Willowbrook already has bucked the odds by advancing to the quarterfinals for the first time since 1990. As the 23rd seed in Class 7A, the Warriors (8-3) beat No. 10 Quincy and No. 7 Glenbrook North by impressive margins to earn a quarterfinal home game against the second-seeded Flyers (11-0).

"It's been a pretty healthy buzz around school, but I don't know if the kids really grasp it yet," said Willowbrook coach Nick Hildreth. "I think it's good to be a little naive about the history and just focus on East St. Louis."

This Warriors team is the first since 1990 to win a playoff game and the first since 1994 to play host to one.

Willowbrook reached the Class 5A semifinals in 1974 and 1975 but in a smaller field needed only two wins to get there. If Willowbrook finds a way to upset the mighty Flyers at 2 p.m. Saturday in Villa Park, it'd be the first team in program history to win three playoff games.

"It's great for our program to have an opportunity like this," Hildreth said. "Once you get to this point you can't really hide anymore. We're going to give it our best shot."

Pack up the bus:

Of the four remaining playoff teams in DuPage County, Glenbard West (9-2) faces by far the longest road trip this weekend when the Hilltoppers travel to Edwardsville. In fact, aside from a 1976 trip to Belleville West, it'll be the longest playoff road trip in the program's history.

In the midst of navigating a brutal Class 8A bracket, pulling together travel logistics in such a small window of time isn't easy. More than anything, the 20th-seeded Hilltoppers are making sure nothing disrupts their rhythm while trying to knock off No. 12 Edwardsville (10-1).

"Logistically, we've got it all figured out," said Glenbard West coach Chad Hetlet. "It took a lot of work (Sunday and Monday), but we got it done."

After consulting coaches of teams that also made the 270-mile trip downstate, Hetlet decided to head down Friday morning to reach southern Illinois by about 2 p.m. The Hilltoppers will practice at Collinsville High School that afternoon and also stay overnight in Collinsville.

The game kicks off at 1 p.m. Saturday, leaving the Hilltoppers plenty of time to return to Glen Ellyn on Saturday night.

The good news about the long bus ride? If Glenbard West beats Edwardsville, it's guaranteed a home game in the semifinals against either Loyola or Huntley.

"The most important thing for us is that we wanted to get down there and get acclimated after such a long bus ride," Hetlet said. "We thought about all the options, but we decided this was the best way for us to do it."

Delegator in chief:

The head football coach once held complete control over all he surveyed. The head coach naturally still retains authority and ultimate responsibility, but with the increased sophistication of the game the wise leader enables his assistants to shoulder more of the load.

That's typified by this quip courtesy of Stan Goff, the Daily Herald correspondent who covered IC Catholic Prep's 65-0 decimation of Paxton-Buckley-Loda that sent 11-0 IC Catholic into Saturday's Class 3A quarterfinals against fellow unbeaten Wilmington.

"Our defensive staff," Knights coach Bill Krefft said, "I can literally sell popcorn while they're doing their thing."

This week Krefft noted linebackers Kemon Reese, Chris Johnson and Khali Saunders played strongly under defensive coordinator Roger Kelley's direction, but he believed the second-round domination came earlier than that -- on the Knights kickoff team directed by assistant coaches Matt Bowen and Mike Calcagno.

"It started on special teams with great kicks by Sam Buffo, and the kickoff team has been incredible," Krefft said.

In the opening round Lazerick Eatman returned the second-half kickoff 74 yards in what became a rout, 49-8 over St. Joseph-Ogden.

Krefft, like Kelly a member of Immaculate Conception's 2002 Class 3A championship team, has assistants take lead roles on the varied special teams. Eight assistants handle six special teams in addition to their position groups.

"Honestly, special teams wasn't valued in our program as much as it needed to be," Krefft said. "We're better off with people making it their baby and taking it and owning it."

Each coach creates a "culture" within each special team, Krefft said, with its own distinct values.

On kickoff one of the main things obviously involves making the tackle. Under the direction of Calcagno and Bowen, senior fullback-linebacker Matt Jordan and senior receiver-linebacker James Lytton have found a calling.

"Jordan and James Lytton, specifically, just have been outstanding for us," Krefft said. "They're making every tackle for us, basically."

Half and half:

Last week Benet (9-2) found itself locked in a tight game at Normal Community, nursing a 17-14 halftime lead in their second-round Class 7A matchup. The Redwings responded with an impressive second-half effort and rolled to a 38-14 victory.

The effort starkly contrasted the second half the week before when Benet led Hoffman Estates 23-0 at halftime but needed a fourth-quarter touchdown to pull out a 29-23 victory.

"It really was different from last week but it was great to see," said Redwings coach Pat New. "We really responded well in the second half."

In search of their first semifinal berth since 2012, the No. 11 Redwings travel this weekend to take on No. 3 Rolling Meadows (11-0). They'll play at 6 p.m. Saturday.

What stands out most about this matchup for New?

"Eleven-and-0 stands out," New said. "It kind of speaks for itself."

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