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HF defense responding to, thriving on criticism with their play

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HF defense responding to, thriving on criticism with their play

Tyler Newkirk hears it. He reads it, too.

The Homewood-Flossmoor senior crouches into a four-point stance at left defensive end and waits for another opportunity to prove it all wrong.

The red and white face paint streaking across his cheeks and nose add another layer of intimidation that his 6-foot-2, 190-pound chiseled frame already convey the moment he steps on the field every Friday night. On a defense with quieter, lead-by-example seniors, Newkirk is the ultimate exception. There's nothing silent about the anchor of the Vikings' defensive unit, one that in six games has allowed one fewer touchdown (8) than the nine turnovers they've created.

And still, doubters remain. Just wait until they're tested. It's going to catch up with them. A state title won't happen with them playing this way.

Let them keep writing and talking, Newkirk boasts. We'll let our play provide the rebuttal.

"We love it," Newkirk says with a smile. "We hope that keeps on coming because that’s our motivation. We strive to go out there and prove everybody wrong. We want to pretty much shut every hater up."

Such is life for the Homewood-Flossmoor defense, that other unit that makes up the state's unanimously top-ranked team. With the state's most successful offense, one that has averaged better than 12 yards per play, more than 520 yards of offense per game and scored 318 points while resting their starters in the second halves of all but one game, the spotlight rarely shines on Zac Wells' group.

[MORE: HF balancing expectations, avoiding complacency]

And yet, for the criticism they've received in newspapers, online and on social media, they keep responding with dominant performances.

In Week 2 the Vikings traveled to Lincolnshire to face then-No. 5 Stevenson in a rematch of the 2014 8A state title game. A high-scoring affair seemed inevitable as the two teams traded blows in the first half, with Jack Sorenson and the Patriots reeling off 22 first-half points to tie the game before Bryce Gray and the HF offense scored before halftime to take the lead.

In the second half the Vikings defense clamped down, allowing just a single score and 187 total yards, with three of the Patriots' five second-half drives ending on downs.

That performance has acted as a jumping off point for the defense's success. In the last 18 quarters, beginning with the second half at Stevenson, the Vikings' defense has allowed 19 points. The maturation process seen from senior leaders in Newkirk and linebacker Percy Walters has been apparent. But perhaps more important, the coaching staff is beginning to jell, too.

Zac Wells had known head coach Craig Buzea for years coaching and teaching in Indiana, where he had spent the last 18 seasons. As head coach of his alma mater in Merrillville, Ind., Wells made the decision in 2015 to take a "step back" and join Buzea's staff as the defensive coordinator. The move was a relatively easy one for Wells, who wanted to spend more time with his two daughters and couldn't pass up the teaching opportunity at such a highly-regarded high school.

What wasn't easy was adjusting to a program full of new faces, new skill sets and new tendencies, let alone an 8A program with 90+ kids on the roster.

"I think that has probably been the biggest adjustment," he admits, "(was) figuring out where we can best put our kids to be successful."

Building a defensive staff was going to take time, too. Assistant defensive line coach Josh Forney, a Marian Catholic grad, played defensive tackle at Florida International. Linebackers coach Josh Howe played linebacker at Illinois State. Defensive backs coach Terrance Terry played at South Dakota. Assistant head coach and defensive line coach Matt Ramos was a holdover and helped bridge the gap for Wells in putting together a defense that could match Buzea's well-oiled machine of an offense.

"I think that helps because they understand what collegiate level techniques are and what our kids need to know to move to the next level," Wells said. "We’re trying to teach some concepts that are next-level concepts and help them understand the game more than just what their job is."

[#DriveVikings: State-of-the-art practice facilities 'wonderful addition' for HF]

That meant a slow learning process initially. In that Week 2 game against the Patriots, Wells admits he was still getting to know his personnel and hadn't installed many of the schemes and packages that the Vikings will unveil later in the regular season and playoffs. That process has ramped up because of the senior-laden group that has been willing to accept what Wells has thrown at them.

"He’s pretty much like a Zen master of football," Newkirk said. "He knows everything. We learn a lot from him. He teaches us everything. He takes the time to break every single thing down for us and we just love him. He’s a great coach and he adds to our team tremendously."

The defensive line, anchored by Newkirk, also touts Booker Donaldson, Tyler Obee and Montreal Blade. The unit has allowed three yards per rush and six rushing touchdowns in six games.

Walters, the team's leading tackler, is accompanied in the linebacking corps by Justin Hall, Simeon Nwokenkwo, Tyler Beck and Josh Izenbart.

In the secondary, Wisconsin commit Kendric Pryor, Justin Correll and Trevor Johnson have helped limit opposing offenses to two passing touchdowns and grabbed six of the team's seven interceptions.

The doubters will persist. As the Vikings said at the beginning of the year, it comes with the territory. They'll keep hearing about it and they'll keep reading it, too, as they continue their quest to DeKalb and a potential state championship Thanksgiving weekend.

"We play with a chip on our shoulder every week because everybody thinks, ‘Oh, HF. They’re a powerhouse offense but their defense is really iffy,’" Johnson said. "So this year we’re coming out strong and showing everybody that defense is also a powerhouse and we aren’t soft."

Boys Basketball Playoffs begin on busy week of High School Lites

Boys Basketball Playoffs begin on busy week of High School Lites

High School Lites is down to the final week of the regular season in local high school hoops as the Class 3A and 4A schools finish up conference play. The boys basketball playoffs have also started as the Class 1A and Class 2A regional championships will be played on Friday night.

The girls basketball Class 1A and 2A state semifinals will also be featured. You can catch all of those games on NBC Sports Chicago on Friday beginning at 11 a.m. with the 1A semifinals. High School Lites will air Friday night at 11 p.m. on NBC Sports Chicago

East Aurora at No. 11 West Aurora, 7:00 p.m. -- These two rivals meet for the 225th time. The Blackhawks (20-4, 9-0) won the first matchup by 22 points as they try to finish the season on a 12-game winning streak. 

Jacobs at Dundee-Crown, 7:00 p.m. -- Fox Valley rivals match up as Jacobs tries to go unbeaten in the conference. The Eagles (23-3, 15-0) has been playing very well as they've won 20 of 21 games heading into this one -- including an earlier win against Dundee-Crown. The Chargers (14-11, 10-4) has won seven consecutive games since dropping to the Golden Eagles as they're second in the Fox Valley heading into this one. 

Yorkville at DeKalb, 7:00 p.m. -- The top two teams in the Northern Illinois Big 12 East play in this one. DeKalb (16-11, 11-1) has already clinched a share of the conference title as the team's only league loss has come against Yorkville. The Foxes (17-8, 10-2) knocked off DeKalb at their place on Feb. 3 as they try to win again to get a piece of the division title. 

T.F. North at Lemont, 7:00 p.m. -- Two of the better teams in the South Suburban Blue battle on the eve of the playoffs. Lemont (17-8, 9-3) has picked up three straight wins entering this one. T.F. North (11-9, 9-3) is trying to build some momentum after recent close losses to Hillcrest and T.F. South.

Carmel at No. 10 Benet, 7:30 p.m. -- The ESCC closes out its season with this one. Benet (22-4, 7-1) is coming off a nice road win at Marian Catholic earlier this week. Carmel (17-10, 4-4) knocked off Joliet Catholic during the week as they've been a dangerous team in the ESCC. 

Class 2A Boys Basketball Regional Championships

Leo vs. Marshall, 6 p.m. -- The Lions are the favorites but the Commandos are the host of this regional title game. Leo (20-5, 8-0) has a 13-game winning streak as they won the Catholic League White. Marshall (8-17, 4-5) struggled in the win column but they were a competitive 4-5 in a very deep Public League Red-South. 

Uplift vs. Northridge, 7 p.m. -- This should be an interesting battle as Uplift is playing on the road at Northridge. Uplift (17-9, 6-3) has played an extremely competitive schedule that includes a recent close loss to No. 1 Simeon as Kansas commit Markese Jacobs and senior forward Toraze Dobbs are one of the best combinations in the Class 2A field. Northridge (22-5, 12-0) went unbeaten in the Independent School League this season as they're riding a 13-game winning streak.

Class 1A Boys Basketball Regional Championships 

Aurora Christian vs. Harvest Christian, 7 p.m. -- These two teams play for the third time this season in what should be an interesting regional title game. Aurora Christian (23-1, 10-0) is the host as they only lost to Winnebago this season. The Eagles beat Harvest Christian twice in a six-day span in December. Harvest Christian (18-8, 8-2) finished third in the Northeastern Athletic as they played the second game within two points. 

Class 1A Girls Basketball State Semifinals

Okaw Valley vs. Stockton, 11 a.m., NBC Sports Chicago -- Okaw Valley (29-5) is making its first state appearance after winning its first regional title in school history. Stockton (31-2) finished under .500 last season (13-15) and had an amazing turnaround that includes a current 15-game winning streak. 

Lebanon vs. Schlarman, 12:45 p.m., NBC Sports Chicago -- These two teams have combined for two losses this season as this should be a good one. Lebanon (31-1) just won its first sectional title in school history as they've now moved on to state. Schlarman (31-1) is led by junior Anaya Peoples, a Notre Dame commit and five-star prospect in the Class of 2019. 

Class 2A Girls Basketball State Semifinals

Harlan vs. Eureka, 5:30 p.m., NBC Sports Chicago -- Two red-hot teams play in the first semifinal in Class 2A. Harlan (25-6) is riding a 12-game winning streak as this is its first appearance at state for girls basketball. Eureka (28-3) has a 19-game winning streak as they make their first state appearance since 1988.

Marshall vs. Teutopolis, 7:15 p.m., NBC Sports Chicago -- Two storied programs in the state match up in this one. Marshall (20-7) will be making its 21st state appearance as head coach Dorothy Gaters is one of the most storied coaches in Illinois. Teutopolis is making its 17th appearance at state as the Lady Shoes (28-6) seek their first title since 1995. 

Check out the AP boys basketball polls as regular season winds down

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NBC SPORTS

Check out the AP boys basketball polls as regular season winds down

Here is the latest AP boys basketball polls. The girls basketball polls are done with the playoffs underway in all four classes.

Class 4A

School                                 W-L       Pts   Prv

1. Simeon (9)                      25-3      90    1

2. Belleville West                23-2      75    3

3. Curie                                22-3      74     2

4. Danville                           23-2      67      4

5. Whitney Young               22-7     52     T5

6. Normal West                   21-6     28     T5

7. Quincy                              19-4      21     T10

8. Bloomington                   18-7      15     8

9. Evanston                          20-5      14     7

10. New Trier                       22-3       12     NR

Others receiving votes: Moline 11, Niles North 10, Lisle (Benet Academy) 10, St. Viator 5, Naperville North 4, Maine South 2, Rockford Jefferson 1.

Class 3A

School                                            W-L          Pts    Prv

1. Morgan Park (7)                       18-9         88     2

2. Springfield Southeast (2)        22-3         82     1

3. Marian Catholic                        20-4         67     4

4. Hillcrest                                      21-5         57     5

(tie) Springfield Lanphier             22-3         57     3

6. Alton Marquette                       28-0         44      6

7. Centralia                                    21-4          32      7

8. DePaul College Prep                20-6          31      8

9. Champaign Central                  17-7          13      10

10. Decatur MacArthur                 18-8         9        NR

Others receiving votes: Lincoln 6, Burlington Central 6, Bogan 3.

Class 2A

School                                       W-L          Pts     Prv

1. Orr (11)                                 23-4         110     1

2. Warsaw West Hancock      22-2         83       3

3. Pinckneyville                       25-3         76       T4

4. Winnebago                          24-2         75       2

5. Monticello                            22-1         69       6

6. Leo                                        19-5         65       T4

7. Bloomington Central Catholic       21-6         42   8

8. Effingham St. Anthony                    25-3         23   7

9. Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley               24-3         12   NR

10. Trenton Wesclin                             24-4         9     NR

Others receiving votes: Eldorado 7, Corliss 6, St. Joseph-Ogden 6, Bureau Valley 5, Uplift 5 Teutopolis 4, Williamsville 3, Quincy Notre Dame 2, Farmington  2, Casey-Westfield 1

Class 1A

School                                      W-L          Pts      Prv

1. Aurora Christian (9)            22-1        108      1

2. DePue (1)                              24-2        85        2

3. East Dubuque (1)                26-3        80        4

4. Annawan                              25-3        75        5

5. Payson Seymour                 26-2        68        3

6. Sterling Newman                 23-4       57        6

7. Colfax Ridgeview                  24-4       48        7

8. New Berlin                             25-3       33        8

9. Cairo                                       21-5       22        9

10. Nokomis                              21-7         9        NR

Others receiving votes: Newark 8, Quest Academy 5, Milford 4, Cissna Park 2. Okawville 1.