Preps Talk

DRIVE: HF Vikings balancing, thriving on expectations

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DRIVE: HF Vikings balancing, thriving on expectations

As soon as he hears it, Homewood-Flossmoor quarterback Bryce Gray can't resist.

The boisterous senior has been flawless on Day 1, leading a pre-practice throwing routine before manning the Vikings offense in the first drill of the official season. Harsh weather conditions push Illinois' top-ranked high school team inside to their 9,000 square foot indoor practice facility, and from the moment head coach Craig Buzea signals for stretching to begin until the final drill of the early evening, music blares through the speakers. And Gray can't resist.

While the second unit runs their play, Gray jogs back to the first team huddle bellowing out the opening lines to Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" - a few others, including Division I offensive lineman Desmond Bland follow suit - with a contagious smile beaming through his face mask. Never mind that the Michael Jackson single came out in 1987, years before any of the Vikings were born; they're having fun, and Gray is leading the way.

As he's finishing off his last move, the jovial Gray looks to the sidelines and receives instruction from Buzea and assistant coach Alex Pratt for the starters' next play.

Suddenly it's all business.

Gray straightens up, gathers his group, breaks the huddle, barks out his cadence and fires a dart to Division I prospect wide receiver Kendric Pryor, who hustles into the end zone for another precise repetition that resembles an offense practicing in late October instead of mid-August after a 10-day hiatus post-summer camp.

[RELATED: Homewood-Flossmoor ready to complete the job]

Like the veteran group they are, the Vikings seem to have already perfected the delicate balance between the expectations of earning the program's second state championship with the realization that a group that largely has been together since grade school has one opportunity remaining to play together the game they've loved since they first time they had a ball in their hands.

"Nobody's real uptight like, 'We have to win state, we have to win state,'" Gray admits after practice. "Of course we all want to, that's the goal. But we can't help but be loose. We're not putting any extra pressure on ourselves at all."

The well-oiled machine that is the Homewood-Flossmoor offense, commanded by Buzea - who doubles as the team's offensive coordinator - and nearly perfected by Gray has been at this awhile. They return eight starters from an attack that compiled more than 6,000 yards and nearly 600 points a year ago. Defensively, newcomer coordinator Zac Wells has been tasked with replenishing a front seven Buzea admits is booming with "guys that have been waiting to get their turn" and a secondary that includes Deante Harley-Hampton (also the team's leading rusher) and Pryor, a Division I cornerback prospect with a dozen offers, including Wisconsin, Iowa and Iowa State.

The returning core - one that came within three yards of winning the 8A state championship a year ago - understands all too well that the target has been firmly planted on their backs. There won't be any Cinderella story coming out of Homewood, Ill., this season. There's plenty of film on Gray, also a collegiate prospect, after he threw for 2,353 yards and 24 touchdowns as a junior. The two-headed attack of the Hampton twins, Deante and DeVonte, won't be sneaking up on anyone, not after they combined to rush for more than 2,600 yards and 48 touchdowns in their second season as varsity starters.

"There's a lot of teams coming for us," DeVonte says. "We have to be ready for that, and we will be ready for that."

Adds Deante: "I want competition. It makes me work harder. I want (opponents) to bring it every time, and me and my team are going to bring it every time."

[#DriveVikings: Follow DRIVE all season long on Twitter!]

And yet, for as focused as the Vikings are and for as much precision as they exude honing their craft in something as minuscule as a limited practice, they've found time to enjoy the ride.

Buzea, who took over a 1-8 program in 2010, runs an annual retreat that allows seniors time to build chemistry, relax a little and hone in on the focus for the year. Even in that setting there's a balance of work and play. The seniors squared off against the coaches in paintball, and enjoyed pizza and swimming back at Buzea's house. When that was over, each member of the coaching staff and each senior spoke about their goals for the year and how they planned on achieving them. "Buzz," as he's referred to around the program, admitted that much of what the senior class spoke on was what he was saving for in his final speech to end the night, a positive sign that his team is locked in on what's expected of them.

"The senior retreat was one of the best days of my life, honestly" said inside linebacker Percy Walters, a two-year starter. "We really have a bond. It's so special. It was a great moment."

Many teams in Illinois have state-title aspirations. The Homewood-Flossmoor Vikings have state-title expectations. It's why Buzea dubbed the team's motto this season, "Be the B.E.S.T," or "Bring it Every Single Time." All offseason the common theme Buzea heard in the locker room, weight room and classroom was how this group wanted to be remembered as the best, not simply a team that had a successful season despite falling short of their ultimate goal - like 2014.

"We do have a bullseye on our back, people do know who we are," Buzea recalled telling him team. "And you better Bring it Every Single Time or else you're going to get knocked off.

"But we'll take that. We'll embrace it. It's going to be fun, and I think our kids are looking forward to it."

67 Days to Kickoff: Hillcrest

67 Days to Kickoff: Hillcrest

NBCSportsChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting July 30, we’ll unveil the @NBCSPrepsTop 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 24.

School: Hillcrest

Head coach: Morgan Weaver

Assistant coaches:  Mike Young, Kyran Weaver, Rob Hancock, Ryan Keen, Nicholas Schultz, Tramaine Weaver, Phillip Burkett and Langdon Mattox

How they fared in 2017: 9-3 (5-1 South Suburban Blue Conference). Hillcrest made the Class 5A state football playoff field. The Hawks defeated Peoria and Glenwood then lost to Dunlap in the quarterfinal round.

2018 Regular Season Schedule:

Aug. 24 vs Rich Central

Sept. 1 @ Rich South

Sept 7 @ Shepard

Sept. 14 vs Oak Forest

Sept. 21 vs Lemont

Sept. 28 @ Tinley Park

Oct. 5 @ T.F. South

Oct. 12 @ T.F. North

Oct. 19 vs Bremen

[MORE: 79 Days to Kickoff - Crete-Monee]

Biggest storyline: Consistency. After two straight postseason berths, can the Hawks reload and get back into the IHSA playoff field once again this fall?

Names to watch this season: WR Corey Crooms (Western Michigan) and DE Cam Mattox (NIU)

Biggest holes to fill: The Hawks welcome back 11 returning starters (six offense, five defense); hoewever, they will need to reload on the offensive line and at linebacker. 

EDGY's Early Take: Head coach Morgan Weaver was able to get the Hawks into the state playoffs in his first season. What can they do as an encore? Hillcrest has the potential to be a real threat in 5A. Keep an eye on a strong and experienced group of receivers and backs led by senior Corey Crooms (Western Michigan). They also boast a defense that features an experienced secondary and a ton of speed. 

68 Days to Kickoff: Oswego East

68 Days to Kickoff: Oswego East

NBCSportsChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting July 30, we’ll unveil the @NBCSPrepsTop 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 24.

School: Oswego East

Head coach: Tyson LeBlanc

Assistant coaches: Dan Dunbar, Andy Brogan, Jeremy Main, Erik Aister, Dru Filkins, Connor Downs, Zac Sadek, Reggie Cribbs and Mike Harden

How they fared in 2017: 7-3 (7-2 Southwest Prairie Conference). Oswego East made the Class 8A state football playoff field. The Wolves lost to St. Charles East in opening round action.

2018 Regular Season Schedule:

Aug. 24 vs Plainfield East

Aug. 31 @ Joliet West

Sept. 7 vs Romeoville

Sept. 14 vs Joliet Central

Sept. 21 @ Plainfield South

Sept. 28 @ Plainfield North

Oct. 5 vs Oswego

Oct. 12 vs Plainfield Central

Oct. 19 vs Minooka

[MORE: 73 Days to Kickoff - Joliet Central]

Biggest storyline: Can the Wolves get out of the rugged Southwest Prairie conference and make a run in the IHSA state playoffs?

Names to watch this season: ATH Justin Clark and WR Kieon Battle

Biggest holes to fill: The Wolves will need to replace their entire starting defensive line from a season ago.

EDGY's Early Take: Oswego East head coach Tyson LeBlanc is shooting to make the IHSA playoff field and the fourth straight year in 2018. He has a 36-24 record since coming over from Curie High School back in 2012. Oswego East will rely on a strong group of returning offensive skills led by D-1 recruit Justin Clark, who can --and will-- play multiple positions this season for the Wolves.