Helmets off, sun splashed on their faces and jerseys, several Vernon Hills seniors sprawled on the giant, deep-blue Cougar claw at midfield.
Since the postseason started, the football players made it a routine to gather there after their home game. Late Saturday afternoon, with the sun setting behind Rust-Oleum Field's home bleachers, the Cougars basked. They rested, quietly, something they didn't do for four quarters against Marian Central in a Class 5A state quarterfinal.
"It only felt right to do it again," senior outside linebacker Nick Marras said. "It's great. Going out on our home field, knowing you won the game, you can't ask for better than that."
Thanks to its 17-0 win, Vernon Hills has never been better. The seventh-seeded Cougars (9-3) are in the semifinals for the first time and will next travel to No. 13 Sycamore (8-4), which upset top-seeded Sterling 29-22 in overtime.
"It's a lot more than a sport," linebacker Chick Smith, who had a sack and 2 fumble recoveries, said of what the win means to the Vernon Hills community. "Everyone has been cheering us on lately, all the teachers, all the parents. Parents that don't even have a kid on the team are saying, 'Go kick some butt. Go out there and do it for Vernon Hills.' Vernon Hills (football) has been (mainly) average. We're here to show we're not average. We want that ring."
Vernon Hills, which was playing in the state quarterfinals for just the third time in its 17-year history, has a defense that is better than mediocre. The first team defense, in fact, has yet to allow a point in 3 postseason games. Urban Prep scored a fourth-quarter touchdown against the Cougars' backups in Round 1, and last week Nazareth's only points came thanks to a safety.
Rarely have the Cougars been more clutch than early in the fourth quarter against No. 14 Marian Central (7-5). Trailing 3-0, the Hurricanes faced fourth-and-1 from its own 29. They went for it, but Cougars junior lineman Kyle Fasbinder and other defenders stuffed Brian Niemaszek (25 carries, 116 yards) short on a run up the middle.
"If we're going to go down, we're going to go down fighting, regardless of what yard line we're on," Marian Central coach Mike Maloney said. "That's our identity."
Six plays later, Cougars quarterback Kyle Hull scored on a draw from 2 yards out to cap a 28-yard drive.
"I was real shocked (Marian Central went for the first down), especially with 11 minutes left," Vernon Hills coach Bill Bellecomo said. "I thought that was a big momentum swing for us."
The momentum never swayed again. On Marian Central's next possession, Max Lyle stripped the ball from a receiver and Smith recovered at the Hurricanes 35. It took the hosts just five plays to turn the turnover into another TD, as Hull raced into the end zone from the 5 with 6:04 left.
The offensive outburst all but finished off Marian Central, which played without quarterback Gavin Scott, who sported a walking boot after spraining his right ankle last week against Hillcrest. Freshman Patsy Ricciardi started in Scott's place and completed 12 of 18 passes for 96 yards in what Maloney called a "gutsy" performance.
Lyle intercepted Ricciardi in the first quarter with help from a Marras deflection, and Drew Winegardner snatched his seventh interception of the season late in the fourth to put the finishing touch on Vernon Hills' historic win.
"Props to (Ricciardi), being a freshman and leading his team," Smith said. "They're a very good team."
After the teams combined for 11 punts and no points in the opening half, Marian Central started the third quarter by eating up nearly nine minutes. The Hurricanes drove to the Vernon Hills 21 before moving backward, aided by a McNemon Vincent sack, and punting.
It then took the Cougars just 7 plays, including a 38-yard run by Lyle, to reach the 10. They settled for Andre Szmyt's 27-yard field goal with 59 seconds left in the third.
"It's something we talked about at halftime. We wanted to just get some points on the board," Bellecomo said. "We didn't think they could score on us."