Spend even a day around the Homewood-Flossmoor program and the essence and importance of family is apparent.
There's two sets of brothers, Justin and Jeremy Correll and twins Deante and Devonte Harley-Hampton. Head coach Craig Buzea's wife, Barb, is on the sidelines weekly, supervises team dinners and runs the team's Twitter account - "the little things," Craig Buzea said in a 2010 interview. Buzea himself has brought in multiple coaches with whom he had developed friendships with while coaching in Indiana the last two decades.
It's why the Vikings family was hit so hard in August 2013 when athletic director Alec Anderson suffered a heart attack in the school's weight room and suddenly passed, three days after he had addressed the football team for their upcoming season. Anderson had been at Homewood-Flossmoor for just one year, but in that span he touched the lives of everyone around him and became a close friend of Buzea.
"Did a marvelous job. Was great for kids, great for athletics, just really befriended a lot of people that were here," Buzea recalled.
Anderson spent the previous seven seasons at rival Bolingbrook, where he oversaw the Raiders win five state championships, including 8A football in 2011. Anderson's presence and effect made it an easy decision for both schools to honor their friend and colleague with a memorial trophy that would go to the winner of the annual game between conference foes that defensive end Tyler Newkirk likened to Bears-Packers.
The trophy went to the Raiders in Year 1, with Bolingbrook earning a 31-24 victory. Last year the Vikings brought the trophy back to Flossmoor with a 35-28 win - they also beat the Raiders in the 8A quarterfinals - and as the two teams prepare to square off in the final week of the regular season the trophy is just one of the reasons they're looking for a victory.
At stake for the top-ranked, playoff-bound Vikings is a shot at their first outright Southwest Suburban Lake conference title in school history. With a victory Homewood-Flossmoor would earn its first undefeated regular season since 1994. A win would also mean sending its top rival, the 4-4 Raiders, home without a playoff berth for the first time since 1992.
"It was actually one of our goals from the beginning of the year," Newkirk said of an undefeated season. "Of course that’ll be one of the things that we can check off, so that in itself is a big accomplishment. But to win outright conference so we don’t have to share it with anyone else is amazing."
An undefeated regular season appears likely. Though anything can happen in a rivalry game, and Ohio State-bound linebacker Tuf Borland will make things difficult for the Vikings offense, Buzea's group has shown no signs of slowing down. Despite trailing 13-0 - their first deficit all season long - to Sandburg in Week 8, the Vikings didn't panic, made the right adjustments and scored 55 of the game's next 63 points in another blowout victory.
The Vikings have outscored their opponents, 401-80, in eight games. The offense is averaging 11.0 yards per play - 496.1 yards per game - the defense has forced 16 turnovers and Trevor Johnson has only punted five times all year. Homewood-Flossmoor, up to No. 26 nationally on Scout.com, has aced every test its faced up to this point as is only improving as it embarks on a quest for its second state championship.
"We’re starting to play every week more and more together, every week everything is together," said cornerback Kemori Porter, who collected two interceptions in the win over Sandburg. "There’s no individual person. Everybody’s hustling to the ball, we’re making plays, we’re congratulating each other and we’re just all there to support each other. Nobody’s ever alone when you’re out the on the field."
Earning one of the top seeds in the 8A playoffs means the Vikings will likely earn a home playoff game - that, or they'll play in Flossmoor in Round 2 - but Friday is an important contest in that its senior night for a core group that has been on varsity since their respective sophomore seasons. Their hope is the journey ends in a state championship Thanksgiving weekend in DeKalb, but for now the next step is keeping the Alec Anderson memorial trophy at home, earning victory No. 9 and appreciating their final regular season home game.
"I was talking to Coach Buzz, it seems like yesterday we were just freshmen football players just trying to find our way into HF. And now that we’re finally seniors this is it. It’s senior night and there’s so many implications that come with the game, and so now that it’s here it’s going to be a little bit overwhelming at the beginning.
"We’ll see how the emotions work out when we’re on the field calling our names with our parents. But at the end of the day we still have to play a football game and we still make sure we take care of business."