You'd be hard-pressed to find a high school football player who doesn't treat the playoffs like a do-or-die situation. For many of these players, it is in a sense.
For the sophomores and juniors, there's never a guarantee of their teams returning to the postseason the following year. For the seniors, the vast majority will never strap on a helmet and shoulder pads in an organized sense ever again. There's a finality to the high school football playoffs, and for the true contenders in each of the eight classes it presents an opportunity to finish a dream or to lose it for good.
And yet somehow, it means something even more for Deante Harley-Hampton and the Homewood-Flossmoor Vikings.
The supremely talented running back can't forget how his junior season ended. It's been well documented, that inside a minute to play in the 8A state title game Harley-Hampton fumbled at the 3-yard-line, cementing a 31-25 loss to the Stevenson Patriots. Harley-Hampton rushed for 77 yards and a touchdown in the crushing defeat, averaging better than 4.5 yards per carry against one of the state's best defenses.
But none of those yards mattered on that late November evening in Champaign. It was the three yards he didn't get. And while the senior has moved past his shortcomings as a junior, it undoubtedly has fueled him to finish what he came 9 feet shy of a year ago.
It's why as the second season began last Friday night for the Homewood-Flossmoor Vikings, Harley-Hampton announced his arrival and left no doubt about his plans for the postseason.
Harley-Hampton, who had battled a calf injury the last three weeks, rushed 13 times for 287 yards and three scores in the Vikings' opening round 55-17 victory over O'Fallon, finding the end zone on rushes of 14, 85 and 95 yards in the blowout win.
"I was a little gassed, I've got to get in shape," Harley-Hampton said with a smile, referencing his 63-yard run late in the second half that didn't find the end zone. "I'm not used to running that far. But I'm glad I can run that far with my O-linemen, major shoutout to them. My running backs coach, coach Albert Evans. I'm just blessed right now."
The Vikings rushed for a season-high 602 yards, averaging nearly 16 yards per carry while finding the end zone six different times. Much of the success was due to head coach Craig Buzea's implementation of a Wildcat version of the offense, substituting quarterback Bryce Gray for an extra blocker while having Deante Harley-Hampton or his twin brother, Devonte, handling the ball.
And therein lies the rub for opposing defenses attempting Homewood-Flossmoor. For as well as Deante ran against the three-man O'Fallon front, Devonte was just as good. The taller of the two Harley-Hampton twins rushed 15 times for 249 yards, also finding the end zone three times. The two-headed monster proved unstoppable Friday night, and it acted as a reminder for the rest of the state that this offense is still the most lethal in the state, despite their Week 9 hiccup in a 22-21 loss to Bolingbrook.
"Now we're starting to have our mojo back," Devonte Harley-Hampton said. "We had to bounce back from last week but now we've got a little fire to ourselves. We're coming back strong."
A Vikings team that came 3 yards from the ultimate prize doesn't need to be reminded about how fragile the playoffs can be. Gray admitted after the game that the Vikings were as focused in practice as they had been all season long, perhaps both a reaction to the surprising Week 9 loss and the reality that one more bump in the road means heading home without the trophy they expect to win in hand.
The expectation for the eighth-seeded Vikings is a trip to DeKalb in three weeks, and for a senior-laden team that experienced the lowest of lows in last season's state title game there won't be any skipped steps. Doubt from the outside crept in following the loss in the season's final week, but the playoffs are a different animal. And for a team that's been in this exact position before, with so many seniors on their last hurrah before graduation, the past is a reminder to not let it happen again. That focus was apparent last Friday, and it will remain as they continue their journey toward a state championship.
"I thought this was a big step in the right direction to be able to do what we did tonight, and do it so convincingly," Buzea said. "You never know when you're going to be done or when you're going to get a group of seniors like this or a team like this."
Added Gray: "We had our best week of practice all year, amazing week. And I think the product showed on the field. We've got to keep this going for four more weeks and we can do some special things."