That old saying, "It's not how you start, but how you finish," was especially fitting on this night.
For Willowbrook and Leyden, Friday's West Suburban Gold opener on the Eagles' home turf provided nary a guarantee of a division title, let alone a playoff berth -- but it sure provided the winner some important early season momentum.
Thanks to a 38-carry, 214-yard, 3-touchdown performance by third-year running back Jack Jessen and a stifling performance on defense that held the host school to just 79 yards total offense, the visitors from Villa Park prevailed 20-13 in Northlake.
"One learns to never take wins like this for granted," Willowbrook coach Nick Hildreth said. "You're always happy to get a win in this conference, but it's not easy."
For the Warriors (2-1,1-0), this victory came after they successfully responded to a pair of turnovers that resulted in both of Leyden's scores.
After Senior lineback Miguel Cooper recovered an errant snap that went into the end zone to give the Eagles a 7-0 advantage at the 3:15 mark of the opening period of play, the Warriors evened things at 7 on a 4-play, 80-yard drive that was capped by the first of Jessen's 3 touchdowns as he broke through the Leyden line for a 60-yard score that took just 61 seconds to accomplish.
A 36-yard pick-6 by Cooper on Willowbrook QB John Taylor on their next series put Leyden up 13-7 with 31 ticks left in the first.
But Willowbrook grabbed the lead for good with a 3-play, 64-yard drive that began on a 56-yard keeper by Taylor that Jessen finished up from the 1 two plays later for 14-13 halftime edge.
"We learn to pick one another up," Jessen said. "We learn to never blame one another. We are a team, and there will be team times when you're up and times when you're down and you just have to keep going forward."
The visitors continued their march forward in half number two as a 12-play, 42-yard drive ended with Jessen's second 1-yard TD run and third of the contest that ended the scoring with 2:08 remaining in the third.
Jessen, a two-time all-state wrestler who committed to wrestle for Northwestern next fall, credits his conditioning regimen for the ability to handle the physicality that. comes with playing the position.
"It trains you not to be tired," Jessen says. "It prepares you to be mentally tougher, to stay hungry out there."
The 5-foot-11, 199-pound senior also played on the defensive end for the Warriors on the Eagles final threats of the evening as they as they twice drove inside the Warrior 35 in the final 10 minutes of play with the first thrust ended at the 33 on downs with 9:17 remaining and the second and final attempt ended when junior DB Scott Tumulty joined younger brother sophomore Sam in picking off Leyden junior QB Kyler Britton (8 of 23, 39 yards).
"I thought we did OK overall," Hildreth said. "There were some things we struggled with, but I really liked how we flew to the football overall tonight."
As for his running back, Hildreth doesn't take for granted the privilege of having coached him these last three seasons.
"He's just so much fun to coach," Hildreth said. "He gets angry when he has to come out for even one play. He's someone that has the mindset of being able to accomplish anything that he puts his mind to."
With a matchup versus Addison Trail at home next Friday, Hildreth knows another tough WSC Gold battle awaits.
"They're always tough," Hidreth says. "Like tonight's game, it's one of those things where we know one another so well. We need to be prepared for the challenge that they'll bring."
For Leyden coach Tom Cerasani, a trip to Proviso East for a 6 p.m. start in Maywood next Friday offers his young squad a chance to turn around this season after the Eagles slipped to 1-2.
"The most important thing is to remind our guys that we still two-thirds of the season still to play," Cerasani said. "We we unable to get anything done on offense, but I thought with the exception of a couple of big plays, we did well on defense. It came down to them making more big plays than we did. That was really the difference."