Chilling prospects in in rugged Class 8A bracket
The champion of the heavyweight class in the high school football playoffs will certainly feel like it has been through a knock-down, drag-out heavyweight fight when all is said and done.
The Class 8A bracket is scary and brutal this season. The bloodshed starts appropriately this weekend (on Halloween) with the first round, and whichever team is left standing at Memorial Stadium in Champaign over Thanksgiving weekend will have truly earned its title and hardware.
"This is the toughest 8A bracket I can remember," said first-year Warren coach Bryan McNulty, a longtime assistant coach prior to taking over the Blue Devils. "You win a game and you're in for another really tough game. Even the city schools are tough. Simeon beat a DuPage Valley Conference school (Wheaton North) this season. There are no cupcakes at all."
The numbers support it. No other class, besides Class 1A, has more playoff teams that are 7-2 or better than Class 8A. There are 20 Class 8A playoff teams that fit into that category while there are just 17 in both Class 7A and Class 6A. (Class 1A, by comparison, has 22 teams that are 7-2 or better, including five undefeated teams.)
Class 8A boasts three undefeated teams in Stevenson, Glenbard West and Maine South, and also has more 8-1 teams than any other class in the state, with eight. There are nine teams that are 7-2 in Class 8A, including Warren, which must go on the road to play another 7-2 team (Loyola) in the first round.
"Overall, Class 8A is just phenomenal. The records prove it," Stevenson coach Bill McNamara said. "You always say that you've got to play the great teams anyway to win a state championship. But with how tough this bracket is, it seems like those games are happening so much earlier because there are so many of those teams."
That's particularly true on one side of the bracket. The "north side" of the Class 8A bracket features all three of the 9-0 teams as well as half of the eight 8-1 teams and five of the nine 7-2 teams. While defending champion Naperville Central is in the southern bracket, Loyola, the state runner-up last year, is also in the north.
"I think it's odd that the northern bracket got all of the 9-0 teams," McNamara said. "It's an extremely tough road to the state championship."
It's no wonder Warren quarterback Jay Nickell has been sacked only once this season.
And it no accident that Warren running back Darrius Crump has been running wild out of the backfield for nearly 200 yards a game.
Both players are talented on their own. But they've also gotten a lot of assistance. A big part of Warren's offensive success this season can be attributed to its massive offensive line, perhaps the biggest in program history.
The linemen have paved the way to hundreds and hundreds of rushing and passing yards.
"I would think our line is one of the biggest in the state this season," Warren coach Bryan McNulty said. "Jay is a very good quarterback and Darrius is a very good running back, but, without a doubt, our line helps them be even better."
The Blue Devils are averaging 268 pounds from one end of the line to the other, and feature two players who weigh more than 300 pounds.
Senior Javon Burruss leads the way. The left tackle checks in at 6-foot-6, 330 pounds. Next to him is 6-foot-3, 310-pound guard Emmanuel Henry. Center Cole Anderson is 6-foot-4, 235 pounds. Right guard Joey Zumpano is 6-foot-5, 285 pounds, right tackle Eric Nielsen is 6-foot-7, 240 pounds and tight end Erik Kupraitis is 6-foot-3, 210 pounds.
"We're a big school. It's nice, we get those kinds of kids," McNulty said. "I think having a big line like that gives us the confidence to go into any game and know that we can compete with anyone."
The return of Burruss also gives the Blue Devils confidence. Burruss missed time this season with a torn meniscus in his right knee. He got it scoped after the season opener against Lyons and was out for six weeks.
"Javon is just so physical, like a lot of our linemen," said McNulty, who believes Burruss is still likely to receive a significant number of college scholarship offers. "He completes our line and I think with him back, we have even more confidence in our offense."
With 16 starters back from last season, there aren't many key players for Lakes who don't clearly remember the awful feeling they had in the pit of their stomachs around this time a year ago.
Lakes, 8-1 at the time, was upset 21-14 on its own field in the first round by Prairie Ridge, which had slipped into the playoffs at 5-4. The Eagles, which saw a promising drive stall at the Prairie Ridge 4-yard line as time expired, have been stewing about the missed opportunity for the last year.
But this weekend, they have the rare chance to, in a sense, hit the re-do button.
Once again, Lakes and Prairie Ridge are paired up in the first round. And once again, the game is at Lakes, at 7 p.m. tonight.
"The craziest part of it all is that I can't believe it's been a year already," Lakes coach Luke Mertens said. "We all remember it (like it was yesterday). Last year was such a devastating loss for us. It was really hard for the kids to handle.
"I think they're really excited to have this second chance. Anyone who has an ounce of competitiveness in their body would be. We have a lot of kids back who remember that. They are experienced. That's really valuable this time of year."
Mertens is also anxious to see if his program can break into elite company. Prairie Ridge is just three years removed from playing in the state championship.
"Over the past 15 years, Prairie Ridge has been a really good program," Mertens said. "We have a tremendous amount of respect for that caliber of program. It's the kind of program we're trying to become. To beat that kind of program is an important step for our program."
It didn't take long for Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald to be convinced that he hit a home run with Stevenson wide receiver Cameron Green.
Green committed to Northwestern during the off-season and Fitzgerald was on the sidelines at Libertyville last week to see if Green and Stevenson could complete its bid for a perfect 9-0 regular season.
Green caught a 58-yard touchdown pass on the very first play of the game. Minutes later, he was hauling in another touchdown pass (42 yards) right in front of Fitzgerald, who was stationed near the end zone along the Libertyville sideline with his two sons and offensive coordinator Mick McCall.
Stevenson cruised to a 34-14 win as Green rolled up 150 yards on 4 catches.
"I knew he was going to be here," Green said of Fitzgerald. "All I had in mind was going out there and just playing another game. But it made me happy to be able to go out on the field and show out for him. I can't wait to be a Northwestern Wildcat."
From visits on the sideline by college coaches to high state and national rankings, there have been plenty of distractions for the Stevenson football team this fall.
But staying grounded has been one of the team's biggest goals during its undefeated regular season.
"Thinking about all that stuff is kind of what got to us last year. We kind of got high on our horse a little bit," said Stevenson junior receiver Jack Sorenson, who started in the playoffs last year as a sophomore. "We sometimes were thinking more about the ranking than what we needed to do to get past that next game. So, 9-0 is awesome, but we're not looking at that right now. We're thinking about winning that next game."