These Homewood-Flossmoor Vikings know this could all be over in a split second.
They've seen it firsthand.
A year and eight days ago then-senior linebacker Preston Sanders, the expected leader of a young but talented Vikings defense, was running through a standard tackling drill on the eve of the team's Red and White intra-squad scrimmage when he suffered a gruesome leg injury with the entire team watching. The horrific scene - a broken fibula and dislocated ankle - ended Sanders' season in an instant and became a stark reminder of the fragility the current seniors find themselves in as their final season commences.
"Last year when Preston broke his leg, I haven't seen guys in the NFL that passionate about football. That's how Preston was," said senior linebacker Percy Walters, who replaced Sanders in 2014. "You can't take anything for granted. One play and it's done, your season (could be) over."
[#DriveVikings: H-F football ready to complete the task]
It's part of the reason head coach Craig Buzea created the "B.E.S.T." slogan for this year's championship-caliber squad. While fluke injuries have been the cause of abrupt career-enders, so too could a lack of focus against one of the many programs that will be gunning for Illinois' top-ranked football team. With six road games on the schedule, and five contests against teams that qualified for the postseason a year ago, the Vikings being at their best some of the time won't be good enough. Bring it "Every Single Time" or another team will.
"It means I can't waste no time," said senior offensive lineman Desmond Bland. "It still hasn't hit me yet that this is going to be over soon. But I'm going to make the most of while we still can."
Like the end of the road being in sight hit the seniors when they formed even more chemistry at their annual retreat, it's also becoming apparent to this veteran-laced group that the time to win is now.
Walters admitted that last season the Vikings began as individuals, attempting to gain the state's respect through personal accolades instead of a cohesive bond they'd soon find out was required to succeed. The results were telling, as they began the year 3-2, dropping their only two real tests in the first half of the season to Stevenson and Lincoln-Way East.
"We were playing so selfish," said Walters. "Everybody was yelling at each other, nobody was coming together."
Added running back Deante Harley-Hampton: "We were kind of big-headed, thinking nobody could stop us."
Buzea quickly put a stop to that destructive style of play, implementing team bonding drills after Week 5 in which players were paired up to learn more about their teammates they hadn't known off the field as well.
The transformation was evident, as the Vikings reeled off eight straight victories on their way to a berth in the 8A state championship game. And it's that vital piece of knowledge and experience, that understanding of how delicate their situation is, that Walters hopes will have his group hitting the ground running.
"My goal is to get that back," Walters said. "But this time I want to get it back for Week 1 so we're not waiting."
If they're able to accomplish their team goals, that experience will play a large part. Tasting success in the build-up to the state final game was the finishing touch on a roller coaster season, but the end results were only possible because of the commitment they made to each other early in the year.
"We grinded every day," said linebacker Simeon Nwokenkwo. "We've got to do what we did last year to get to where we want to be (this year)."
Added defensive coordinator Zac Wells: "The mentality of 'remember what it took to get to where we were last year' has really been a mantra and a vehicle we've used to make sure the kids stay in the correct mindset, and I think our guys have done a really nice job with that."
They'll soon enough find out which track they're on and whether they need to change course as the regular season heats up. The Vikings are gunning for their first conference championship in the Southwest Suburban Blue, and with a Week 2 tilt against reigning 8A champion Stevenson and a Week 9 contest against Bolingbrook that could very well decide the league, there will be little time off for the Vikings to rest.
But the daily grind is something this senior-laden team embraces. Knowing all too well how quickly things can change or abruptly end, past memories and current situation alike are fueling them to get back to the promised land and finish their goal of hoisting a state championship in DeKalb three months from now.
"Walking out on the field, state championship with the lights on, looking up in the stands seeing the student section and the community supporting us, it was just unreal," Walters said of last year's title game. "That right there is what motivates us more to get back there and relive that moment."