A defensive gem for Warren in win over Zion-Benton
The reward was a bottle of Gatorade.
But, with temperatures in the 30s on Friday night, perhaps Malachi McNeal should have promised a hot chocolate instead.
McNeal, the outgoing and extroverted leader of the Warren defense, loves to try to pump up his teammates, and challenge them.
He dangled a Gatorade in front of defensive back Benjamin Wilson before the season opener against Zion-Benton.
"Ben is a young junior and I wanted to get him going so I told him that if he got a pick (interception) today, I would buy him a Gatorade," said McNeal, a senior linebacker and three-year starter. "So I guess I owe him a Gatorade right now.
Wilson intercepted a pass deep in Warren territory in Zion-Benton's only drive of substance in the second half. It was one of many highlights for Warren in a 48-6 North Suburban Conference win in which the Blue Devils seemed to pick up right where they left off with the defensive prowess they showed in 2019, when they pitched six shutouts and allowed just 52 points over 14 games en route to the Class 8A state championship game.
Zion-Benton's only touchdown came in the first half on a 74-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Erik Franklin to Duyonte Dowdell.
"It's never good for us to see points on the board, McNeal said. "That's not OK with us. We don't like giving up points. But we got some turnovers and I'm really happy about that."
Warren, which finished 13-1 in 2019, gave up only 138 yards to the Zee Bees' offense before a running clock at the end of the third quarter. The Blue Devils also forced multiple fumbles and intercepted another pass, which senior defensive back John Boehm returned for a 22-yard touchdown.
Meanwhile, the offense was chewing up the rushing yards, led by junior running back Maurice Edwards, who finished with 146 yards on 17 carries.
Edwards, a transfer from Grayslake Central, scored 3 touchdowns.
McNeal, used in the offensive backfield in short-yardage situations, also rushed for 3 touchdowns.
"We waited 18 months to play," Edwards said. "We thought we were going to play in fall, it didn't end up happening, but we've been working since then. We kept going. We were ready for this game."
The Blue Devils were especially ready at quarterback.
Head coach Bryan McNulty is using a rotation of a fairly equal distribution of series between three quarterbacks: senior Phil Hird, junior Aidan Lucero and sophomore Adam Behrens.
All three quarterbacks led drives that resulted in touchdowns.
"It's not as different as people might think it is," Hird said. "We have great competition in practice and there's no animosity. We all have a lot of skills and we all have different skills and it wouldn't be smart for us not to use all that if we have it. We're all just trying to get better. We have the same goal to win and that's all that matters."
Another thing that really mattered to both teams was just being able to play in the first place.
"The kids were saying that they feel alive again," McNulty said. "They're doing something that they should do."
Zion-Benton coach Cristo Garza was the most upbeat he's probably ever been in a loss.
"Going into this season, I've just been preaching to our kids that regardless of the outcome, we should be excited just to be playing, because three months ago, we didn't know if we'd get this," Garza said. "And what better team to get to play than this (Warren) team, which was two plays away (in 2019) from the state title. You can tell that Warren is doing everything they can to get back to that championship form. What a great opportunity for us. We've got a lot of young kids, and I was proud of the way our kids fought."