There's a certain maturity level about the Homewood-Flossmoor Vikings that keeps head coach Craig Buzea from ever becoming nervous.
This is a team that knows all too well the fragility of high school football, and how quickly circumstances can change. Eleven months earlier the Vikings were three yards away from winning a state championship. Two months before that the team, comprised of juniors at most skill positions, sat at 3-2 after a gutting defeat to rival Lincoln-Way East before reeling off eight straight wins. This is a group that all year played with a bulls-eye on its back, the unanimous top-ranked team in Illinois that got opponents' best shot each Friday night, all the while dealing with outside noise of detractors and doubters.
It's why as Buzea stood in front of his Vikings last Friday night, having just been upset by rival Bolingbrook at home in the regular season's final week, there wasn't a sense of panic in his voice. Instead, as he's done all year, he spoke to his team matter-of-factly.
"I’m not angry. I’m not mad. We did not deserve to win," he said. "You don’t make mistakes like we did and win games like that. And we won’t in the playoffs, too. Can’t happen. Shouldn’t happen.
"Always talk in this program it’s not the action, it’s the reaction," he added. "So, how are we going to react? How are we going to react? Bottom line."
Though just a single loss for a top-tiered program still favored by many to win 8A, Friday's defeat stung the Vikings. The Raiders marched down the field in the game's final minute to set up a game-winning field goal, earning a 22-21 victory and vaulting them into the playoffs for the 24th consecutive season. On Homewood-Flossmoor's side, the loss meant crossing off three of the team's goals they had set out at the beginning of the season.
An unblemished 14-0 season. Winning the Southwest Suburban Lake conference title outright for the first time in school history. Keeping the Alec Anderson Memorial trophy, given to the winning of the annual HF-Bolingbrook game, in Flossmoor. Few teams run the table and go wire-to-wire as the state's top-ranked team, let alone an 8A team that faced three ranked opponents and played six games on the road in the regular season. The Vikings were hoping to make history.
Still, the matured Vikings, with core players entering their third postseason, have their primary goal of a state title in sight.
"Our goals are still in place. The second season starts and we know if we do something like that again we’re done," said quarterback Bryce Gray, who finished the regular season with 23 touchdown passes and zero interceptions. "So I think it’ll be a sharper focus, more hard work going into it. This is it. It’s now or never. For most us seniors it’s now or never. Some of us will never put on the pads again, so we know what the ramifications are. We’ll come back strong and do what we need to do."
The path to DeKalb was made considerably tougher with the loss. The Vikings dropped from a potential No. 3 or 4 seed with a win to the No. 8 seed, lining up on the same side of the bracket at the top-seeded Loyola Ramblers. They also could face the No. 15 Stevenson Patriots, the team that beat them in the 8A state title game a year ago, in the quarterfinals.
Their path is now more difficult, but it's also more difficult for the teams in their bracket that assumed they'd face the lethal Vikings later in the postseason. What their new playoff seeding does is give the Vikings an earlier chance to quiet the detractors who all year long were waiting for them to slip up. There's no easy wins in the postseason, as Buzea told his team in the locker room Friday night, meaning playoff seeding is simply a number next to a school's name.
"I still believe we’re the best team in state. We just have to prove it now. People are going to doubt us now, saying we can’t beat Bolingbrook. We’re going to have a lot more doubters than we did before and we just have to prove them wrong. We had two losses last year, made a nice run in state, came three yards away from a state championship.
"So it can be done, and it will be done."