Wheaton Warrenville South defense pressures St. Rita during the Class 7A football semifinal.
Daniel White | Staff Photographer
Heading into the football season, Wheaton Warrenville South knew its defense would be a team strength.
The Tigers had no idea the unit would be this good.
The 11th state title game appearance by WW South will be like none of the previous 10. The Tigers (10-3) vie for their eighth championship against unbeaten Rockford Boylan (13-0) in the Class 7A final at 4 p.m. Saturday in Champaign.
The two-time defending 7A champs are not your typical candidate to three-peat. The Tigers started the season at 1-3 following losses to Glenbard West, Maine South and Naperville North.
With five DuPage Valley Conference teams still to play, the postseason seemed a dim hope. The Tigers won all five games, however, and ride a nine-game winning streak into Memorial Stadium.
Much of the reason for the late-season surge is an all-senior starting defense that's short on superstars but huge on heart.
"We all know we can trust each other, which is important with a defense," said Tigers senior defensive lineman Evan Welsh. "Our coaches are always telling us to be selfish as a player but work as a team. Everyone's running to the ball, trying to make the plays, but at the same time we know our teammates are going to be there when we need them."
The Tigers have four defensive players with starting experience from last year's state title team linebackers Adam Dansdill and Brandon Peterson, lineman Jack Lipinsky and defensive back Mike Shelton.
Last year's experience helped the returners bring the newcomers along. The Tigers continue to thrive despite the loss to injury of Lipinsky.
"At 1-3 I was just worried about getting some wins and taking care of business in the DVC," said Dansdill, who leads the team with 136 tackles. "We just tried to get better each week so that when this time came we were ready to go."
The Tigers haven't allowed more than 21 points in a game, and that was in the opener against Glenbard West. They've faced four teams averaging better than 30 points a game and face another in the Titans, last year's 6A champions, who average 40 points.
In the playoffs WW South's defense has been especially impressive. They blanked high-powered and previously unbeaten Lincoln-Way East 7-0. They beat East St. Louis 10-7 in the quarterfinals and last week edged St. Rita 21-14.
All three wins came on the road, further testament to the focus of the team and a defense with little margin for error. The Tigers' 22 points a game are the second fewest scored in the entire 7A field.
"It's been an adjustment for us, but the kids have done a great job learning their roles," said Tigers defensive coordinator Mark Jackson. "They've played very disciplined, which is a key to our success. We don't have extraordinary athletes, but I think our kids believe in the system."
As always, the Tigers' defense relies on quickness, speed and technique as opposed to size and power. They're consistently outsized on the line, but that's how they like it. In fact, it's by design in order to fully utilize their quickness.
They've grabbed a bunch of takeaways in the playoffs, they've made huge fourth-down stops. During the push toward a DVC title, Shelton even scooped up a blocked field goal and returned it for a touchdown as time expired to beat Glenbard North 13-7.
Those closest to the program know this is a special group.
"They've had to hold teams and keep us in games all year," said WW South coach Ron Muhitch. "I've never once seen them get frustrated or disillusioned. They always just go out there and get the job done."
Against a Boylan offense averaging 350 yards per game, the Tigers' defense again has its work cut out for it. It's not the first time.
After the challenges they've already faced this season, there's no doubt the Tigers will be ready.
"Every player on our defense seems to complement everyone else, and every player is as solid as the next," Welsh said. "We've just done a fantastic job this year."