Preps Talk

HF plays for each other, takes another step toward title dreams

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HF plays for each other, takes another step toward title dreams

Homewood-Flossmoor was falling apart.

After racing out to a 20-point lead in the game's first six minutes, the 2014 Vikings were slowly crumbling in a crucial road tilt against Lincoln-Way East. The Griffins, then ranked No. 16 in the state, had clawed back in the first half and trailed by a single score at halftime, 28-21. The two teams traded scores in the second half, with the Griffins scoring the eventual game-winning touchdown with 6 minutes remaining in a 43-40 victory.

The heartbreaking loss, one that cost the Vikings a shot at their first SouthWest Suburban Blue conference championship, was a reality check for Craig Buzea's junior-dominated group. Squaring off against its biggest rival, the young Homewood-Flossmoor team had focused its energy on finding a way for the Griffins to lose instead of rallying as a team to help their own cause.

"I just saw our team come apart, just yelling at each other, screaming at each other," head coach Craig Buzea recalled. "And we corrected it later on in the year and got things rolling, but I just didn’t like that, how divisive we had come with each other."

It's why last Friday night, in a rematch of bitter rivals between the state's top-ranked Vikings and the No. 13 Griffins, Buzea had a different message for his team. Moments before his team took the field, Buzea ended his pregame speech with a heartfelt thought, relaying to his senior-laden group that had all experienced last year's crushing defeat, that they were playing for one another, not against a nameless and faceless opponent.

"Instead of playing against the people in front of you with hatred, despair, things like that, that happens with a rival," Buzea calmly relayed to his group, "what I want you to do is this: play for the people behind you that you love and you respect and you go to war with every day. That’s what I want. That anger that you feel toward your opponent is not nearly as strong as that bond you have playing for the people that respect you, that are behind you, which are your teammates.

"And that’s all it takes, guys. That's all it takes. Stay together. I believe in you, the coaches believe in you, by God you believe in each other."

What happened next was the most complete 48 minutes of football the Vikings had played all year in a 28-3 victory.

The Vikings, despite their surplus of talent on the offensive side of the ball, were relatively shorthanded. Running back Deante Harley-Hampton, the team's second leading rusher, had been hampered by a left calf injury suffered a week earlier. He didn't practice all week, didn't come out for pregame warmups and wound up rushing just 10 times for 25 yards before sitting the majority of the second half. Though the injury is thought to be minor, if anything it changed how the HF offense, which had been healthy all year, attacked a Griffins defense that had allowed 32 points in five games.

It meant more volume for Deante's brother, Devonte, who rushed for 129 yards and two touchdowns on 19 carries. His first score came late in the second quarter, plunging in from 1 yard out to extend the Vikings' lead to 21-3. His second score put the game out of reach, a 73-yard scamper with 7 minutes remaining. It was just the second game of Devonte's football career in which he hadn't had his twin brother in the backfield with him, and though reserve Tyler Nutall (8 carries, 32 yards) contributed, a steady dose of Devonte was going to be necessary for success.

"I put most of the pressure on my back because (Deante) was out most of the game, so I had to pick up his slack," he said. "It changed my mentality a lot. There’s a lot of pressure and it was a big game for all of us."

[#DriveVikings: HF balancing expectations and avoiding complacency]

It also meant more vertical passing from quarterback Bryce Gray. Though certainly much more than a game manager, Buzea's offense and the embarrassment of riches at the skill positions allowed Gray to play it safe more often than not; Gray has thrown 106 passes without an interception, and yet those 74 completions have gone for 1,817 yards and 20 touchdowns.

But needing a spark, with the Vikings' offense down a vital piece to their rushing attack, Buzea let his supremely talented quarterback loose. Gray was exceptional, completing 13 of 18 passes for 226 yards and a touchdown. Three of his completions went for 40 or more yards, two to Wisconsin commit Kendric Pyror (41, 50) and one to rising junior star Ty Richie (46). Four different Vikings are averaging better than 20 yards per reception through seven games.

"I know if I’m throwing the ball up they’re going to go get it," he said. "Unless I throw a terrible pass they’re going to go get it. I wish we could have thrown it more. But they changed it up and made some adjustments, but having those two guys on the outside is amazing, really. I just let it go."

The offense cranked out 414 yards snd scored three times, all without their second leading rusher and third leading receiver in Harley-Hampton. But those numbers were well short of their season averages, and the unanimous feeling in the locker room was that the Vikings could have done more.

They didn't need to.

The Homewood-Flossmoor defense, which had been the subject of criticism earlier in the year, saved their best performance of the year for the season's biggest stage.

The Vikings offense, which hadn't been held to fewer than 40 points in any game this season, went on a rare cold streak midway through the second quarter. Though they looked like world beaters on the opening drive, their next three possessions ended in a turnover on downs, a lost fumble and the third punt of the year, gaining just 57 yards on 17 plays.

[RELATED: HF defense responding to, thriving on criticism with stellar play]

Waiting to take advantage was Brandon Bauer and the dangerous Griffins offense, which entered Flossmoor having averaged 37 points per game. Trailing 7-3 midway through the second quarter, Bauer led the Griffins on a drive deep into Vikings territory and appeared ready to cash in - the Vikings hadn't trailed an opponent all year.

But an errant snap over Bauer's head took an odd bounce as he tried to land on it, with linebacker Percy Walters subsequently delivering a hit that squirted the ball out of Bauer's hands.

Waiting to scoop it up was rising sophomore linebacker Justin Hall, who scampered 62 yards for a score and shifted momentum the Vikings kept the remainder of the night.

Lincoln-Way East failed to get a hand on the ensuing kickoff, giving the Vikings offense a short field that ended in a touchdown five plays later. In the span of 84 seconds the lead went from 7-3 to 21-3.

"I just knew the ball was coming out, so as soon as I seen the ball pop out I was like, ‘I’ve got to take advantage of this. This is a big game,’" Hall recalled. "As soon as I picked it up all I saw was field, daylight, took it right to the end zone. Right home with me."

Wells' defense continued erasing doubts about their talent in the second half. In five second-half possessions, the Griffins were shut out and gained just 125 yards. Hall compiled a game-high eight tackles and recovered his second fumble early in the fourth quarter.

The Vikings defense has now allowed 22 points in their last 22 quarters, 15 points in their last four games and is hitting their stride as they continue to transform under Wells.

"I knew it, my coaches knew it, they were telling me this is a big game for you," Hall said. "I was like, ‘Well, big time players make big time plays in big time games.’"

The defense picking up the offense. Devonte Harley-Hampton and Gray's arm picking up Deante being less than 100 percent. "Team wins" have long been a cliche in football, but it's exactly what the Vikings accomplished in Week 7. The Vikings took their coach's pregame message to heart and took an important step on their journey toward winning a state title.

With the inside track on an undefeated regular season and conference championship, mentally preparing for what will be a grueling 8A playoff schedule has become equally important as the X's and O's for the state's top-ranked team.

"I knew it was going to be some adversity and I knew at that point I didn’t want them to just bank on their feelings toward their opponent," Buzea said. "I wanted that feeling to really come back on their teammates, and they looked like that’s exactly what they did.

"It looked like they really played for each other and I think that’s a big key moving forward."

Public League champion Simeon remains clear No. 1 in latest Preps Power Rankings

Public League champion Simeon remains clear No. 1 in latest Preps Power Rankings

The Class 1A and 2A regionals begin this week and the regular season is finishing up for every other team in the state. We're getting that much closer to state titles being decided in Peoria. Simeon remains the clear No. 1 in the latest Power Rankings after beating No. 4 Whitney Young and No. 2 Orr by double digits on the way to earning a third straight Public League Playoff title, while a couple of familiar faces are back in the tail end of the rankings.

1. Simeon (25-3, 9-0) (1) -- Simeon stays at No. 1 after winning the Public League Playoffs for the third consecutive year. The Wolverines have now defeated teams No. 2 through No. 6 in the Preps Power Rankings for a 6-0 record on the season in which the average margin of victory has been 14.5 points per game. The clear No. 1 in the state of Illinois, Simeon has the week off before the Class 4A playoffs.

2. Orr (22-4, 9-0) (2) -- Orr put up a good fight but they ultimately fell short to No. 1 Simeon in the Public League Playoff title game. The Spartans did gain revenge on No. 3 Curie, however, with a big semifinal win on Friday. Orr has to forget the title loss ahead of the Class 2A Playoffs that begin this week as the Spartans try to repeat as champions.

3. Curie (23-4, 8-1) (3) -- The Condors have only lost to No. 1 and No. 2 when it comes to in-state losses as they remain one of the most complete and balanced teams in the state. Curie has the week off before the IHSA Playoffs.

4. Whitney Young (22-7, 7-2) (4) -- Whitney Young earned a huge quarterfinal win over Morgan Park before falling to Simeon in the Public League Playoff semifinals. The Dolphins also have the week off before they attempt to repeat as Class 4A champions. 

5. Morgan Park (18-9, 7-2) (5) Disappointing result for the Mustangs as they lost on a buzzer-beater in the Public League Playoffs to Whitney Young. Defending champions in Class 3A, the Mustangs will rest this week before the playoffs begin.

6. Fenwick (18-7, 8-0) (8) -- The Friars earned two wins during the week as they beat Marmion while also getting a huge conference road win at Loyola. Fenwick will battle Taft during the week.

7. New Trier (22-3, 8-1) (9) -- New Trier had one of the best weeks of any team in the area as they picked up wins over Maine South and Evanston. Now the leaders in the rugged CSL South, the Trevians have some more tough games against Niles North and Glenbrook North this week. 

8. Evanston (20-5, 8-2) (6) -- Evanston's red-hot recent play was finally slowed down as they fell to rival New Trier. The Wildkits will try to bounce back when they play Vernon Hills in a Central Suburban crossover this week.

9. Oak Park-River Forest (21-5, 12-0) (11) -- The Huskies finished the West Suburban Silver season unbeaten following wins over York and Proviso West. OPRF gets a great test right before the playoffs when they face Hinsdale South in the West Suburban championship game.

10. Benet (21-4) (6-1) (12) -- Two wins for the Redwings this week when they beat Joliet Catholic and Stevenson. Things aren't easy for Benet this week as they head to Marian Catholic before hosting Carmel in two tough ESCC games. 

11. West Aurora (19-4, 8-0) (13) -- The winning streak is now 11 for the Blackhawks after beating South Elgin. West Aurora will play Bartlett and crosstown rival East Aurora this week as they try to keep the momentum going into the playoffs. 

12. Marist (23-4, 6-2) (15) -- Marist picked up a double-digit win over St. Patrick during the week as they prepare for the Class 4A draw. The RedHawks will have an ESCC game against Marian Central this week. 

13. Niles North (22-4, 5-4) (8) -- The Vikings fell to CSL South rival Maine South and followed that up with an overtime win over a tough Wisconsin team in St. Catherine's. The Vikings get a crack at conference leader New Trier this week before playing Maine West in a tough Central Suburban crossover. 

14. Marian Catholic (20-4, 5-3) (16) -- Three wins for the Spartans during the week as they knocked off Nazareth, Rich Central and Marian Central. Marian Catholic gets a tough test this week when they host Benet in its final ESCC game.

15. Naperville North (23-2, 14-1) (17) -- The Huskies have won eight straight games as they clinched at least a share of the DuPage Valley Conference with a win over Waubonsie Valley this week. Naperville North hosts Wheaton-Warrenville South this week to decide the DVC title.

16. DePaul Prep (20-6, 5-3) (19) -- Picking up a convincing double-digit win over Mount Carmel, the Rams got back on track after the loss to Brother Rice. DePaul Prep will host Montini during the week as they prepare for Class 3A. 

17. Loyola (21-6, 5-3) (10) -- Tough recent stretch for the Ramblers as they fell to St. Joseph and Fenwick to fall out of the Catholic League Blue race. Loyola hosts Steinmetz for a tune-up this week. 

18. Hillcrest (21-5, 13-0) (21) -- Hillcrest survived a tight win over T.F. North before winning convincingly against Oak Forest. The Hawks have the week off as they prep for Class 3A. 

19. Leo (19-5, 8-0) (22) -- Finishing the regular season with a big win over Marmion, the Lions will be one of the area teams to watch in the Class 2A playoffs as they are in the Marshall Regional. 

20. Homewood-Flossmoor (16-6, 7-1) (23) -- Another huge win for Homewood-Flossmoor as the Vikings took down Bolingbrook to keep a lead in the SouthWest Suburban Blue. Homewood-Flossmoor goes on the road this week to battle Sandburg and Lockport. 

21. Hinsdale South (20-5, 10-2) (24) -- The Hornets stayed hot with wins over Addison Trail and Proviso East as they clinched the West Suburban Gold. Hinsdale South has a tough battle against Oak Park-River Forest in the West Suburban championship game this week. 

22. St. Viator (22-5, 8-0) (25) -- The Lions picked up some wins against Carmel and Bartlett. St. Viator will try to close out the ESCC with an undefeated record when they play Nazareth this week. 

23. Bolingbrook (17-6, 5-3) (18) -- Bolingbrook fell out of the SouthWest Suburban Blue conference race when they lost to Homewood-Flossmoor. The Raiders still have some tough games to close out the regular season when they play Lincoln-Way East and Stagg.

24. Maine South (20-7, 6-4) (NR) -- Huge win for Maine South as they knocked off Niles North after losing to New Trier in overtime earlier in the week. The Hawks close out the regular season with a Central Suburban Crossover against Highland Park.

25. Willowbrook (22-5, 9-3) (NR) -- Willowbrook is back in the rankings by earning three double-digit wins over Morton, Leyden and Downers South. The Warriors have only lost to ranked teams like West Aurora and Hinsdale South lately as they've been playing well. 

Five top-25 matchups highlight loaded episode of High School Lites

Five top-25 matchups highlight loaded episode of High School Lites

High School Lites had five matchups between top-25 teams on Friday night as the Public League Playoff semifinals and big matchups in the CSL South, Catholic League Blue and SouthWest Suburban Blue took shape.

Be sure to follow us on Twitter @NBCSPreps for the latest news and scores for IHSA basketball.

Wintrust Athlete of the Week: Palatine's Eduardo Orozco

Saint Xavier Team of the Week: Maine West girls basketball

Highlights

No. 1 Simeon holds off No. 4 Whitney Young

No. 2 Orr gets revenge on No. 3 Curie

No. 9 New Trier takes down No. 6 Evanston

No. 8 Fenwick handles No. 10 Loyola Academy

No. 23 Homewood-Flossmoor rallies past No. 18 Bolingbrook

Oswego East upsets No. 20 Joliet Central

Andrew shuts down Thornridge

Sandburg tops Lockport in OT

Richards runs by Shepard

Maine West captures second straight girls basketball regional title