St. Charles North proves resilient in reaching 7A state title game
Most high school football teams do not advance to championship games when forced to deal with the kind of adversity St. Charles North has faced this season.
Yet, No. 22 St. Charles North (10-3) will play No. 8 Nazareth Academy (12-1) for the Class 7A title in Champaign on Saturday at 4 p.m. despite injuries to starting quarterback Peyton Brown in Week 1 and starting running back Sam DeMarco in Week 7.
Most teams would struggle to even make the playoffs were they to lose two such high-caliber players.
The 2018 North Stars are not most teams.
You've heard of the next-man-up philosophy? St. Charles North embraces the next-brother-up version. Each injured starter was replaced by his younger sibling.
When Peyton Brown went down in Week 1, junior Kyler Brown stepped into the starting role. He has since thrown for 1,715 yards and 16 touchdowns on 113-of-202 passing, with Peyton's help.
"He gives me a lot of confidence, especially off the field," Kyler Brown said of his older brother. "We watch a lot of film together and it's just awesome having him by my side to go through this journey."
Senior Sam DeMarco had rushed for 729 yards and 3 touchdowns in 138 attempts before he was hurt. Sophomore brother Nick DeMarco has since rushed for 851 yards and 5 touchdowns on 156 carries.
"To see him grow as a sophomore to where he is now has been pretty awesome," Sam said. "Honestly, the next-man-up philosophy just really works."
Each understudy in sixth-year coach Rob Pomazak's system stepped into a starting role without interrupting the team's forward momentum.
"It's a compliment to Pom's program, the way he does it, the way he starts kids working as freshmen right through their senior year," said third-year varsity offensive linemen Alex Westendorf, a South Dakota State recruit. "I just really think it shows what kind of program we are. It doesn't really matter the age. It matters what kind of work you put in."
The next-man-up philosophy was tested further last week when sophomore Daniel Kowaleski started in place of senior linebacker Dan Daley. One of North's leading tacklers, Daley had surgery a week ago to repair a shattered right thumb he said was broken "in six or seven places." Kowaleski made 3 tackles in the semifinal victory over Mt. Carmel.
"It's kind of complicated to explain the process Pom has been able to implement, but it's all we know and it works," Daley said. "We get out what we put in. It's the reason we've been so successful the last few years."
The North Stars have been putting in time throughout the holiday week to prepare for their toughest opponent yet. Nazareth has a future Division-I quarterback in sophomore JJ McCarthy. He has thrown for 3,088 yards and 35 touchdowns and has been intercepted 4 times in 219 attempts.
McCarthy has myriad weapons at his disposal, most notably senior receivers Diamond Evans and Michael Love. Evans, who Nazareth coach Tim Racki called "one of the best blocking wide receivers I've ever coached," leads his team in receptions (56) and receiving yards (1,112) and has 12 touchdown catches.
Love, a lightning-quick, 5-foot-10, 175-pound senior, has 54 receptions for 1,087 yards and 18 touchdowns. If he gets the ball in space, look out. "He's just electric," Pomazak said.
Batavia, which defeated St. Charles North in a close game in Week 8, played evenly with Nazareth from scrimmage last week. The difference was special teams. The Bulldogs fell behind because of two botched punts -- a high snap over the punter's head and a low snap that resulted in a block.
After Batavia trimmed a 3-touchdown deficit to 7 points in the third quarter, Nazareth regained control with an 85-yard kickoff return touchdown by Derrick Strongs, sprung by blocks from Evans and Love.
"We are going to have to play a very good game in all three phases," Pomazak said, "but I don't think that's different from where we have been any other week. I think special teams is going to be huge."
Nazareth is the last obstacle for the St. Charles North to overcome in a season dotted with them. Already the most accomplished football team in the city's history, these North Stars can achieve legend status if they clear the final hurdle.
"With what we've gone through as a team, all the adversity, it's crazy to think about how far we've come," Kyler Brown said. "But we've earned it. And since day one we've always talked about going to state. Now, our dreams are coming true."