Vezza delivers in biggest moments, leading York to best season in school history
When the going got difficult this season, York senior quarterback Matt Vezza was always there to make it all better.
In the words of one DuPage County football coach whose team competes in the same West Suburban Conference as York, "A game-changer who made plays when plays needed to be made," he said. "An all-around stud. Every jam they got into, he got them out of."
And while he was at it, Vezza, the Captain of the 2022 Daily Herald DuPage County All-Area Football Team, helped York become the first team in school history to go undefeated in the regular season, win 12 games in a season and make the program's first appearance in the state semifinals since 2006 (third in school history).
"A lot of our games came down to the wire and we play in a good conference. Matt's poise and him being calm and collected is remarkable," said York coach Mike Fitzgerald, who has taken a program that had lost its way and transformed it into a powerhouse that has gone 24-5 over the last three seasons (20-3 in the last two). Prior to that, it took York nine years to win 24 games combined.
"We were involved in overtime wins and close games in the fourth quarter and no moment was ever too big for him," Fitzgerald continued. "Matt embraced it and wanted the ball in his hands. He wanted to deliver for his teammates because of how much he cared about his teammates and how much they cared about him."
Vezza, a first-team Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Class 8A all-state pick and the West Suburban Conference Silver Division player of the year, completed 63% of his passes this season, finishing with 2,028 passing yards to go with 21 touchdowns against only 5 interceptions. He also ran the ball 115 times for 637 yards and scored 6 more touchdowns on the ground.
"Vezza's a gamer," York senior defensive back Matt Sutter said. "He's the type of kid who will put his body on the line for his team and it showed throughout the year, especially in the playoffs. He got his nose dirty in those trenches, carrying the ball more than our running backs. The way Matt can pick apart defenses based on presnap reads and coverages is truly amazing."
Case in point: York's second round Class 8A playoff game against Chicago Marist (double overtime win at Marist) and the quarterfinal game against Palatine were played in not-ideal weather conditions, which necessitated a change in offensive strategy.
"We had to rely on Matt carrying the ball quite a bit," Fitzgerald noted. "He carried like 50 times for close to 300 yards in those two games and was able to keep drives going, sustain drives and keep our defense off the field."
Specifically, Vezza ran the ball 24 times for 146 yards and 2 touchdowns in the Marist game and ran 27 more times for 142 yards and 2 touchdowns against Palatine -- totals that accounted for nearly half his rushing output on the season at two vitally important times for the Dukes.
Fitzgerald ticked off other instances throughout the season of Vezza's excellence, ranging from getting York key first downs in that double overtime playoff win over Marist to the big touchdown pass to Charlie Specht against Glenbard West to running a 2-minute drive that helped get the Dukes to overtime against Downers Grove North to converting a big 3-and-17 play late against Lyons Township in the midst of an intense game.
In other words, if it had pressure written on it, Vezza was on the case.
"There were a lot of situations where he was able to deliver in those moments," he said. "He gave our team the best chance of winning the football game. There were moments where we were in a 4-minute situation where we're trying to milk the clock and get the timeouts out of the other team's hand where Matt would make things very difficult on other teams. He could get that first down for us and make the other team use all their timeouts, giving them zero chance to come back. He's a tremendous competitor who doesn't want to lose in anything. When it's on the line, you want the football in his hands. He finds a way to come out on the other end."
Vezza said coming through in big moments would be impossible without his teammates.
"Whenever we are in a jam, we all as a team focused in on what we had to do -- all 11 players on the field were focused on doing their job," he said. "I focused on my job and didn't try to be a hero and didn't try to do too much. I let it come to me -- make the play when it happens."
But make no mistake about it, Vezza welcomed the chaos.
"I think pressure is a privilege," he said. "It's fun to play in pressure, but I don't think I have always felt that way. It's kind of developed throughout my high school career -- believing in myself. Confidence comes from preparation. I work relentlessly to be prepared for those situations. When those situations come up, I am confident. I feel like I have been through it all before."
Sutter said York's defense benefitted greatly from battling Vezza in practice.
"Matt loves to win, and so do I," he said. "It definitely caused some commotion in practice, considering we played on opposite sides of the ball and only one of us could win. The best word to describe Matt is he's a magician. We played one high safety and I would creep up to linebacker depth and Matt would make eye contact with me and start giggling. He knew I wasn't actually blitzing and then proceeded to make a no-look pass over the middle. Matt made us so much better as a defense and forced us to use our brains on the field, which was key in our success this year."
Specht added: "What makes Matt stand out to me is the attitude he has after every play. I have never seen someone so unsatisfied, whether it was after a big play or a mistake up 50 points. I think that says a lot about how competitive he really is. Every play is the most important play of the year to him."
York senior offensive lineman Dom Begora had plenty to say about Vezza and the secret sauce behind the quarterback's uncanny ability to succeed on the field.
"What makes Matt an elite player is the grit he plays with at a position that is not typically known for having grit," he said. "Every time he runs, he puts his body on the line for his team, even if it could cost him his health. He always plays for the guy next to him and knows everyone's jobs on the field. While a lot of quarterbacks are athletic, Matt plays with an intensity unmatched by anyone and leads through his inability to give up. Matt is the type of player to put his head down to get an extra yard, because he knows this is a game of inches and that yard could win us the game."
Begora rattled off three reasons Vezza gets the job done when his back is against the wall.
"He trusts his teammates to do their job so he doesn't have play Superman," he said. "Matt knows that if he does his job, everyone else will do theirs and we will come out on top. He knows that he works harder than almost every other player, so if he has to beat you with his arm or legs, it doesn't matter. Matt knows he's better than you and trusts himself to beat the man in front of him. He never doubts for one second that we are the better team and he plays like it. He knows more about the other team than they do him. In times of stress and pressure, Matt trusts his research and knows that the other team will be the first to break, not him. By playing like this, it inspires the rest of the team to follow and elevates those around him to play to their highest potential."
Vezza, who has a 4.6 grade-point average and scored a 1,430 on his SAT and would like to study something mathematics related in college, said this season brought with it plenty of satisfaction.
"As a group, we put in a ton of work and to see that work pay off, having us be the most successful team in York history, is a great feeling," said Vezza, who is drawing Division I college interest and has a Division I offer from a school in the Pioneer Football League. "This was Coach Fitz's fifth year here so he got to work with everybody on the varsity team since they were freshman and he's done a great job of changing the culture at York to a winning culture where winning is expected. All the guys bought into it and we had great leaders pushing each other in the right direction. We had a great bond and enjoyed practicing together each day. All of those things helped us have a great season."