Four years ago, when Kevon Dobbins was in eighth grade, he went to a Willowbrook football game and knew he wanted to be a part of that program.
He'd never before played the sport competitively but he loved the high-energy, fast-paced action he saw on the field. Despite being relatively new to football, Dobbins is a senior third-year starter on the Warriors' defensive line and a crucial part of the team's success this season.
"It's stories like that we love hearing," said Willowbrook coach Nick Hildreth, whose team can wrap up a playoff berth with a victory over Morton on Friday. "Those kids on the fence, you hope they see what you're doing and want to be a part of it."
Willowbrook (5-1, 3-0) is alone atop the West Suburban Gold standings, something the Warriors accomplished with a balanced offense that uses a lightning no-huddle spread offense to keep opposing defenses off-balance.
Third-year starting running back Jack Jessen is the team's leader with 1,155 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, but the Warriors also flash explosiveness in the passing game with quarterback John Taylor. The defense's opportunistic secondary has 11 interceptions including returns for touchdowns by Sam Tumilty and Jacob Entwistle.
There's always something exciting to watch at a Willowbrook football game. Dobbins noticed at a young age.
"We wholeheartedly believe in the way we play, but we also want the guys to remember how fun it is to play," Hildreth said. "Even in practice we try to keep everything up-tempo and positive."
Boy, did Lake Park need that one.
The Lancers' backs were against the wall after three straight losses, but they responded in a big way by beating Metea Valley 41-0 last week. At 3-3 overall and 3-2 in the DuPage Valley Conference heading into Friday's game against Glenbard North, Lake Park hopes to keep its playoff hopes alive with a winning streak.
The Metea Valley victory was a good start.
"It was a complete game," said Lake Park coach Chris Roll. "And we needed a dominant win like that."
The Lancers broke out to a 35-0 halftime lead and prompted the running clock early in the third quarter despite beginning the decisive touchdown drive with a holding penalty. Lake Park not only notched its first shutout of the season, the Lancers also posted their highest point total.
On the heels of three heartbreaking losses, the mood has improved greatly with the Lancers.
"It was great for us," Roll said. "It's been completely different this week."
Regardless of last week's loss, Metea Valley loves having three-year starting tackle Bryce Effner back in action and playing an expanded role.
The 6-foot-5, 285-pound senior missed the Mustangs' first three games recuperating from mononucleosis diagnosed in July. Initially returning to his left offensive tackle spot Week 4 at Wheaton North, Effner added defensive tackle duties the next week against Waubonsie Valley. Mustangs coach Ben Kleinhans said Effner plays about 60 percent of the defensive snaps, particularly in crucial situations.
"He's a force no matter where he's at," Kleinhans said.
An all-DuPage Valley Conference offensive lineman as a junior, Effner collected 20 scholarship offers before deciding on Penn State, though Kleinhans said schools still contact him should his interest in the Nittany Lions wane. Rivals.com ranks Effner Illinois' ninth-best player in the Class of 2018 and No. 37 among offensive tackles nationwide.
"He's extremely athletic for a person his size," Kleinhans said. "He runs like he's 230 and he's got length. If he gets his hands on you and he spreads his arms you don't have much of a chance to do anything."
For weeks after the mononucleosis diagnosis, Effner himself couldn't do much of anything for Metea (0-6, 0-6). He's since shaken off the rust and gotten his conditioning back.
"He's playing better and better and getting back to that dominant left tackle he was last year," Kleinhans said. "He works hard at his craft. He wants to be the best and his approach continues to be good."
Old Plank Road Trophy:
Shortly after Lisle lost another heartbreaker to Wilmington last Friday, a Lions player gave coach Paul Parpet Sr. notice that the disappointment hadn't dimmed the team's resolve.
"Coach, it's Westmont week," the player said.
The battle for the Old Plank Road Trophy, a traveling artifact that since 2006 has gone to the winner of the Lisle-Westmont game, resumes Friday at Benedictine University. It hasn't been much of a battle of late, Lisle winning the last two meetings by a cumulative score of 92-0. Lisle (3-3, 2-2 Interstate Eight Small) holds a 7-4 lead for the icon.
Westmont and Lisle players, who grew up competing against one another in a variety of sports, know way more about the Old Plank Road Trophy than does first-year Sentinels coach Dan Woulfe. He did participate in a local rivalry as an assistant coach at Metea Valley, which has its "Eola Bowl" with Waubonsie Valley.
While he's gotten great play all season from center and linebacker Tanner Plowman, at this point Woulfe is more interested in Westmont (2-4, 0-4) regrouping from a four-game losing streak.
"It's another game for us to try to continue doing things right and build for the future," he said.
Lisle won't let this opportunity slip particularly with a playoff berth to win. Lions senior two-way starter Cameron Stitt, for example, was banged up enough against Wilmington to come off the field defensively, but he'll be ready Friday.
"He won't miss the Westmont game," Parpet said.
As long as Downers Grove South wins games, the Mustangs won't worry about style points.
Downers South (3-3, 3-1 West Suburban Gold) won its second straight game with last week's 18-0 victory over Morton. It was also the Mustangs' second straight shutout and a clear sign of how they plan on making a run at the playoffs in the last three weeks of the regular season.
"We're trying to ride our defense right now," said Mustangs coach Mark Molinari. "We've got so many injuries we're just trying to keep things simple."
The Mustangs lost starting quarterback Matt Greenwald and backup George Ross to injury, forcing sophomore Jayden Lambert into action. He's posted back-to-back 100-yard rushing games, but it's the defense -- led by linemen Sergio Villalobos and Ali Issa and linebacker Keiran Burke -- that truly stood tall the last two games.
In the victory over Morton, Downers South allowed only 6 total yards of offense.
"It's old-school Downers Grove South defense," Molinari said. "It's one of the better tackling teams we've had. Nothing fancy, just solid tackling."
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