Warren's wonder kids quickly grow into lead roles
Age is just a number.
That's what all of us aging people like to tell ourselves.
But it works on the opposite end of the spectrum, too.
Just like getting older doesn't necessarily need to limit us, neither does being young. Too young.
Just ask the "Sophomore Seven" on the Warren football team.
Too young to play varsity? Too young to start varsity?
Ummm ... no. And no again.
The Blue Devils went young this year, perhaps younger than they've ever been, pulling up seven sophomores to varsity and inserting four of them into the starting lineup.
And the fountain-of-youth facelift has seemingly worked wonders as Warren has started the season 3-1, and 2-0 in the North Suburban Conference heading into tonight's 7:30 p.m. megatilt against visiting Lake Zurich, which is undefeated at 4-0 (2-0 NSC).
Sophomores Matt Rich (offensive line), Seamus Mellican (middle linebacker), Willis Singleton (defensive line) and Josh Turner (cornerback) are starters for the Blue Devils, while sophomore Adam Saul is the kicker. Two other sophomores, Juan Dela Cruz (defensive line/ wide receiver) and Torris Childs (running back), are both varsity reserves and currently out with injuries.
"This may be the best group I've seen come through here in my 11 years at the school," Warren coach Bryan McNulty said of the seven sensational sophomores. "On top of being great athletes, these seven kids are also good students and citizens around the school. The future is very bright."
McNulty and his coaching staff have known that for awhile now.
They've seen this class coming, like the bright lights of a lighthouse, beckoning relentlessly, even from afar.
As eighth graders, the sophomores won the Super Bowl championship in the TCYFL (The Chicagoland Youth Football League).
As freshmen last fall, they went 9-0 and dominated the North Suburban Conference.
That winter, five of the now sophomores went out for basketball and helped the freshman team roll to a 40-2 record.
Now this year, even with seven sophomores on varsity, the rest of the sophomore class that is currently playing on the sophomore team is currently 3-0-1.
Clearly the class is strong, from top to bottom.
"There are a lot of guys from our class who are still on the sophomore team who are super talented too," said the 6-foot-2, 275-pound Singleton. "I can't wait to get back with them next year when they come up to varsity. We're going to have a really great team then.
"This is just a great class. All these great kids just happen to be going to Warren. It's kind of (luck).
"We just happen to have a lot of guys in this class who are big and strong and fast and who have this really high IQ for football. Guys like this don't come around that often. Without someone telling you we are sophomores, you wouldn't know it."
Physically, the sophomores look more like seniors.
Cornerback Josh Turner is the smallest of the sophomore starters at 6-foot, 180 pounds. But his speed, not to mention his football savvy, gives him an upperclassman kind of feel.
Turner is the nephew of former North Chicago and Northern Illinois standout running back Michael Turner (The Burner), who went on to stardom in the NFL with the San Diego Chargers and the Atlanta Falcons. He had an eight-year professional career from 2004 to 2012.
"I remember going to Michael's games when I was like 8 or 9 years old," Turner said. "He was always so fast and I remember he was always working. Working hard.
"Michael was also on varsity when he was a sophomore in high school and he told me that I really needed to commit myself to football if I wanted to be good, that I really needed to work hard."
Turner has tried to follow that advice, but he says that his age has motivated him to work even harder than he normally would.
"I really wanted to make varsity this year but I knew that everyone would be watching me (closely) because I'm a sophomore. Expecations would be higher," Turner said. "I knew I would have to really earn my spot.
"I was actually kind of surprised that I became a starter, but as I've gone along, I feel like maybe it's meant for me to be there. I kind of fit like a piece of the puzzle."
Meanwhile, Rich and Singleton certainly fit right in on the line.
Their size, both are 6-foot-2, 275 pounds, made them instantly valuable.
Rich, the offensive lineman, and Singleton, the defensive lineman, literally butt heads every day in practice.
"When you're in eighth grade and pretty much bigger than everyone else you play against, you're not really sure (how good you are)," Rich said. "But now, we're going against all this 8A competition and there is talent on the line like I have never seen before. But Willis and I go at it every day in practice. And I think that's been great for both of us.
"We are making each other better every single day."
Giving his best effort every single day is one of Rich's goals for this school year. He wrote all of his goals down on a piece of paper and attached them to his bedroom wall.
He looks at them every day.
"One of the goals I wrote down on that sheet before the season was that I wanted to make varsity as a sophomore," Rich said. "I looked at that every day during the off-season and that made me want to work hard. I think hard work put me on varsity."
Singleton is convinced of the same.
He spent the off-season working out with two football-centric organizations, EFT out of Highland Park and DIPT out of Mundelein. Both focus on football-specific skills and techniques.
"I worked really hard on my craft, like my extension, locking into an offensive linemen and being able to come off him and still make a play," Singleton said. "I worked on my pass rush skills. There is a lot that goes into that, starting with your hands and how to slap the offensive lineman's hands off you. You work a lot on moving your hips too, which helps you get to the quarterback."
As Warren's middle linebacker, Mellican is always thinking about how to get to the quarterback. He studies film like he studies for his classes.
And he boasts a 4.0-plus grade point avearge.
"I watch a lot of film, I like to learn tendencies," Mellican said. "I want to keep learning and learning so that I can get my (assignments) perfect."
Mellican is on the fast track to perfection.
Of the current sophomores, he was the only one pulled up to the sophomore team last year as a freshman. The rest of his classmates stayed down on that 9-0 freshman team.
"I just think I was ready for it (a higher level)," said Mellican, 6-foot-2, 225 pounds. "I knew I could play at that level, and I knew I could play on varsity this year. I just didn't know how much I would play.
"I just tried showing up all the time, doing everything (during the off-season) to get better and to show everyone what I could do. I was a little nervous at the beginning of this season because it's varsity and I didn't want to let anyone down. But it's helped that all of us (the seven sophomores) are able to go through this together."
The sophomores, who routinely socialize together with huge group outings to restaurants and trips to Great America, are excited to get two more full seasons together.
They have high expectations for their class, which is perhaps why many of them stay after practice two to three times a week to watch extra film and work more closely on plays.
"I think we could help put Warren back on the map," Singleton said. "I think we've got a great shot of going to state with our group. This is a special group."
• Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw