Scouting Saturday's Class 8A state championship game

  • Warren's Luther Thompson (4) gets a few more yards over Brother Rice's Mario Brown (8) during the IHSA Class 8A state semifinals in Gurnee.

      Warren's Luther Thompson (4) gets a few more yards over Brother Rice's Mario Brown (8) during the IHSA Class 8A state semifinals in Gurnee. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Warren's Seamus Mellican (49) rips down a Brother Rice player during the IHSA Class 8A state semifinals in Gurnee.

      Warren's Seamus Mellican (49) rips down a Brother Rice player during the IHSA Class 8A state semifinals in Gurnee. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

 
Updated 11/29/2019 6:35 PM

By Bill McLean

Daily Herald Correspondent

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

CLASS 8A STATE CHAMPIONSHIP

No. 4 Warren (13-0) vs. No. 3 Lincoln-Way East (13-0)When: 7 p.m., Saturday, at Huskie Stadium, DeKalb

The road to the championship: Warren defeated Plainfield East 49-7, Fremd 31-6, Bolingbrook 18-6 and Brother Rice 28-0; Lincoln-Way East defeated Plainfield South 40-0, Notre Dame 23-13, Homewood-Flossmoor 26-7 and Marist 24-7.

Outlook: In Warren football coach Bryan McNulty's first state championship game in 2014, his band of Blue Devils defeated Sandburg's Eagles 8-4. Wait, 8-4? Yes. McNulty was coaching his first softball team at the Gurnee school back then -- months before he would applaud hits that have nothing do with bats as the school's first-year football coach in the fall of 2014. McNulty and his helmeted boys aim to go 1-for-1 in the program's title-tilt debut against Lincoln-Way East's Griffins (2-for-3 in state championship games under coach Rob Zvonar); Warren hadn't reached a state semifinal in program history before this season.

"It's a pretty cool thing," McNulty said two days after his Blue Devils steamrollered Brother Rice's Crusaders 28-0 in a state semifinal for their sixth shutout of the season. "It's exciting to be in Gurnee right now."

Warren's clash with 2017 Class 8A state champ LW-E should be a compelling one. Warren has allowed a minuscule 40 points all fall, LW-E a mere 87. Warren's average margin of victory is 35-3; the Griffins' is 32-7.

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"We feel good about our defense," said Zvonar, whose 'D' is led by Northwestern recruit Sean McLaughlin, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound senior end with 9 tackles for loss and a top-15 prospect state ranking.

"Then we look at what Warren has done defensively, having allowed no more than a touchdown in any game, and you realize you don't see defenses doing what Warren's defense is doing each week. I've watched Warren from afar, the way Bryan is developing his program. The respect I have for Bryan goes through the roof. His team is one of the best high school teams in Illinois history."

McNulty's swarming crew on defense will have to have an answer for Griffins senior wideout/running and Michigan recruit AJ Henning (5-10, 185) on NIU's home field Saturday night. Henning was the difference-maker on NIU's home field two years ago, rushing for 154 yards on 17 carries and scoring 2 touchdowns in LW-E's 23-14 defeat of Loyola Academy in the 8A title game. He has amassed 748 of his 1,271 total yards from scrimmage via receptions in his final prep season, and his TD total (13) as a receiver is one shy of his TD total as a rusher.

Sealing off Henning's outside running paths is high on Warren's priority list. If he attempts to seek running room inside after scurrying to avoid senior defensive end Seamus Mellican (6-3, 200, 10 sacks), he'd likely have to encounter senior defensive tackle and Iowa State-bound Willis Singleton (6-2, 285) or linebackers Juan De La Cruz, a 6-3, 220-pound senior, and Malachi McNeal, a 6-1, 220-pound junior. De La Cruz has recorded a team-high 81 tackles, including 7 sacks and 14 other tackles for loss; McNeal ranks second among teammates in tackles (70, including 6 sacks).

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

A remarkable 23 of Singleton's 43 stops have resulted in losses. He averages a team-best 1.1 sacks per game and can bench press small houses with one arm tied behind his back.

"Extremely strong, great in the weight room," McNulty said of Singleton. "But he's also twitchy, a 5.1 guy (in the 40-yard dash). Extremely active and competitive, too."

Warren will count on third-year starting strong safety Josh Turner (5 INTs) and his backfield mates to thwart Henning, the dangerous receiver.

On the other side of the ball, Warren features senior running back and Indiana State recruit Derrick McLaughlin (1,616 yards rushing, 21 TDs), who rushed only 20 times last fall. The 6-foot, 205-pound McLaughlin toted the ball that many times in last weekend's semifinal, gaining 91 yards and scooting for an 18-yard TD.

Do-it-all senior Christian Phillips (5-11, 195) can hurt you with his legs (531 yards rushing, 9 TDs) and hands (722 yards receiving, 12 TDs).

Blue Devils senior quarterback Trinate Jacobs (5-8, 180), a transfer from North Chicago, shared signalcaller duties with junior Phil Hird (the starter in 2018) before claiming full-time status at the position after Warren's 24-3 defeat of Lake Zurich in Week 7. Jacobs, who grew up in Gurnee, tossed an 8-yard, second-quarter TD pass to Phillips to open the scoring against Brother Rice last weekend.

"He competes with a great sense of calm," McNulty said.

The Illinois High School Football Coaches Association named Singleton, Phillips, Henning and LW-E senior kicker/punter Dominic Dzioban (Miami of Ohio recruit) to its Class 8A All-State team.

"Keep an eye on him," Zvonar said of Dzioban, who has made 16 of 17 field-goal attempts and all but one of his 51 extra-point tries this fall. "Don't be surprised if he gets paid to kick footballs after his college years."

McNulty, on his senior kicker/punter, Adam Saul (6 of 7 FGs; 56 of 57 PATs): "Given the number of times he's kicked touchbacks and made our opponents start drives at the 20 (yard line), I consider Adam one of our best defensive weapons."

Squibs: Lincoln-Way East junior wideout Max Tomczak is a nephew of former Ohio State and Chicago Bears QB Mike Tomczak; McNulty's career record at Warren, six seasons: 47-19 (. 712); Zvonar, in his 19th season at the Frankfort school, is 190-39 (. 830).

Quoteworthy: McNulty, on facing LW-E in the first matchup of unbeaten 8A state finalists since the IHSA expanded its football classes from 6 to 8 in 2001: "You're not going to see two teams as similar as the two you're going to see Saturday night. And our kids on offense are not going to be fazed going up against Lincoln-Way East's outstanding defense; they go up against ours at every practice."

Zvonar, on the matchup: "It reminds me a lot of the one our team was a part of in 2012, against Glenbard West (a 10-8 Glenbard West win, in a battle of unbeaten squads for the Class 7A title)."

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