Craig Buzea stood in front of his team silently.
Just outside the gates of the Stevenson football stadium, the Homewood-Flossmoor Vikings gathered around their head coach for one final meeting. Just behind them, the Patriots' marching band performed the school's fight song. The Stevenson students, taking up two sections of the massive stands in their corresponding white outfits, roared as the fifth-ranked Patriots took the field minutes before kickoff. Late-arriving fans from the HF side bellowed out to the team words of encouragement as they filed into the packed house.
Noise surrounded the Vikings, a raucous atmosphere not too dissimilar from the ambience they experienced 10 months earlier in the 8A state title game against that same Stevenson team.
But where they had gathered, under a few trees on a small hill just outside the school's north entrance, the Vikings were eerily quiet. Confidently quiet.
Many of the players knelt. Others stood. Some, like defensive end Tyler Newkirk and linebacker Percy Walters, anxiously paced as they awaited their head coach's final message.
With a gleam of brightness from the stadium's lights on his face, Buzea stared at his players. Then he spoke.
"We talked about our number one goal here today," he said. "'Viking Tough.' Everybody thinks we're finesse. Everybody thinks we're just fast. They have no idea how we hit. They have no idea how we get after people. And I told you yesterday, guys: 'Viking Tough.' You can't really define it, but you hear it and you see it. And when we walk out there today everybody's going to understand what Viking Tough is!"
Perhaps the Vikings have been mislabeled. Or at least not labeled thoroughly enough. Their speed, agility and quick-strike capability had been on full display in the season's first week in a 56-15 trashing of Downers Grove South. It had been apparent the previous year when this year's seniors gashed opposing defenses on a weekly basis, littering Hudl highlight reels with dazzling touchdowns from anywhere and everywhere on the field.
But squaring off against a Stevenson team ranked fifth in the state, Buzea understood flair alone wouldn't carry them to a second straight road victory. They needed to show muscle. They needed to show toughness. Viking toughness.
And in their 43-29 victory over the Patriots, a statement-making win whether they'd like to acknowledge it or not, the Vikings proved they can punch as well as they can dodge.
The embodiment of Viking Tough showed itself late in the fourth quarter, with the Vikings leading 36-29 with 3:20 remaining. Josh Hjorth's defense had all three of its timeouts and knew the Vikings, starting at their own 41, would pound the run game.
Devonte Harley-Hampton, who had scored twice, began the drive with a five-yard run. Deante Harley-Hampton, owner of three rushing touchdowns on the night, then rushed for four more yards. Devonte then picked up a first down on third-and-1 and rushed for five more yards on the next play. On a second-and-6, pocket passer Bryce Gray faked a handoff to Deante and lowered his shoulder for a 7-yard run and another first down. That set up Deante, running behind a bruising offensive line, to break free on the next play for a 29-yard score to put the game out of reach with 1:15 remaining.
"Our plan this game was really to break them down from the inside-out, and in the past it's always been to get to our speed real quick," Buzea admitted after the game. "I thought our offensive line really showed that on the last drive when (Stevenson) knew (we) were going to run the ball, and still be able to get a first down, I think that really was the definition of 'Viking Tough' right here."
Homewood-Flossmoor also revealed that "Viking Tough" was more than just a physical trait.
After racing out to a 22-7 lead, the Vikings surrendered 15 straight points to Jack Sorenson and the Patriots' offense that tied the game late in the first half. Gray and the offense responded with a 10-play, 80-yard drive capped off by a Deante Harley-Hampton touchdown run. Wisconsin commit Kendric Pryor then intercepted Sorenson in the end zone on the half's final play, ending a scoring threat and maintaining the lead.
In the second half coordinator Zac Wells' defense came out with a new attitude. The Vikings defense allowed 177 yards and seven points in the second half, turning over the Patriots on downs three times on five possessions after halftime. The most crucial stop came with 6:23 to play and the Patriots on their own 41 trailing by a score. Stevenson managed the ball to the HF 41 before crucial pass break-ups on third down (by Jeremy Correll) and fourth down (Pryor) ended the drive and set up the offense's clinching drive.
"Hit them in the mouth, that's all we had to do," said linebacker Simeon Nwokenkwo, who had nine tackles and half a sack in the win. "We hit them in the mouth in the second half and it was over from there. We reflected on what happened last year and we pushed ourselves to keep going."