Warren toughs out win over Neuqua Valley
Those special wrist bands that many football players wear and are constantly studying during games are even more valuable than you might think.
Yes, they are called "wrist coaches," but they are not just pseudo coaches, serving as a place to store lists of plays created by the coaches under a protective piece of plastic.
These wrist bands can serve as motivational devices, too.
Flip up the plastic sleeve of plays on the "wrist coach" of Warren sophomore linebacker Malachi McNeal and you will find all kinds of important messages meant to fire him up.
And on Friday night, McNeal and his defensive teammates needed a little firing up in their Class 8A playoff game against visiting Neuqua Valley, which Warren prevailed in 14-3.
"There's 'PLAY HARDER' written on there," said McNeal, as he showed what was hiding on the back side of his list of plays from his coaches. "And there's another message behind that, too. It says, 'Black shirt standard. No one is safe.'"
At Warren, defensive players get issued blue practice jerseys on the first day of practice. But they all want the special and more menacing black practice jerseys that the coaches entice them with. They get those jerseys when they have sufficiently worked hard enough for them.
The Blue Devils all have their black practice jerseys now, but by writing "Black shirt standard" on their wrist coaches, it reminds them of how hard they have to play on each and every down to maintain the standard of excellence it will take to win games in the dominating fashion they desire.
The "Black shirt standard" prevailed against Neuqua Valley, which certainly never felt safe and sound on offense.
Once again, the Blue Devil defense, which had pitched 5 shutouts and was allowing an anemic 2.9 points per game over the final eight weeks of the regular season, put together a gem. Warren forbid any Neuqua Valley action in the end zone and that paved the way to a first-round win.
"The 'Black shirt standard' is a huge pride thing (for the defense)," McNeal said. "You get those blue shirts to start with, but you have to go to practice and go hard every day to earn the black ones. No one wants the blue ones. The black shirts, it's like the standard to our defense. You have to bust your butt every time to get those black jerseys and that's the way we want to play every game, every time. That's what I think of (when looking at the 'Black shirt' message on his wrist coach)."
Warren, which allowed only 12 Neuqua Valley first downs and gave up a measly 61 rushing yards, improves to 9-1 and moves on to the second round. The Blue Devils will next face the winner of Conant at Hinsdale Central, played at 1 p.m. Saturday.
No. 25 Neuqua Valley, which was up 3-0 at halftime on a 34-yard field goal by Palmer Domschke, ends its season at 6-4.
"When we went into halftime, we all said, 'Who said it was going to be easy,'" said McNeal, who recovered a fumble and made a big play on offense late in the game when he was used as a fullback. "We just went out (in the second half) and we just played harder."
Just like McNeal's wrist coach says: "PLAY HARDER."
As the defense played harder and kept tightening the screws, the Warren offense got its motor going.
The defense forced a Neuqua Valley punt on the first possession of the second half and then the Blue Devils got two big runs from workhorse running back Martin Walker Jr.
Walker Jr. took Warren's first play of the third quarter 35 yards. Then on the very next play, he sprinted 22 yards for a touchdown that gave the Blue Devils a 7-3 lead with 9:38 left in the third.
"We had a slow start. A couple flags hurt us," said Walker Jr., who rushed for a game-high 158 yards on 29 carries. "But in the end, we were able to push it in and move these guys. The holes were big, the offensive line opened up a big hole and I was able to make a quick burst through and I was able to get touchdowns."
That's right, Walker Jr. scored Warren's other touchdown too, late in the fourth quarter after McNeal made a huge 17-yard gain on 4-and-1 that got the Blue Devils down to the Neuqua Valley 5-yard line.
Walker Jr. then scored a 5-yard touchdown run on the next play to put Warren up 14-3 with 1:43 left.
"It just took time to get the offense going," Warren coach Bryan McNulty said. "These kids will just keep wearing on you. And Martin ran tough."
Neuqua Valley couldn't have been much tougher. The Wildcats certainly didn't make life easy on a Warren offense that entered the game averaging 32.3 points per game. And the offense kept going at Warren's highly-touted defense.
"We just knew that we couldn't leave anything out on the field," said Neuqua Valley quarterback Mark Gronowski, who completed 9-of-25 passes for 114 yards. "We didn't want to leave any regrets, and we tried to get it done, but we fell short.
"(Warren) has a great D-line, they all play great together. And they just played a with a little bit of a better effort than us today. I feel like if we would have executed, we would have gotten it done. We never stopped fighting, we just didn't have enough to get us all the way through."