Sterling’s football team is facing a potentially dangerous situation – a Hurricane that refuses to be blown away.
Next up for the Golden Warriors is a Class 5A quarterfinal matchup against the Marian Central Hurricanes on Saturday in Woodstock.
Marian (7-4) has been a team on the brink since enduring a four-game losing streak in Weeks 3-6. The most damaging of those was the first one, a 27-0 road loss to Lisle Benet in which starting quarterback Gavin Scott and running back Brian Niemaszek suffered knee injuries, and wide receiver Patsy Ricciardi went down with a chest injury.
Scott, the team’s top offensive threat, missed the next three games, the last two of which were narrow losses to Joliet Catholic (21-13) and St. Viator (28-21). Niemaszek, a 1,000-yard rusher as a junior, has played sparingly since, while Ricciardi, the team’s top backup QB in addition to a wide receiver, missed two games.
Marian, however, forged on. Third-string QB AJ Golembiewski hooked up with wide receiver Charlie Kramer on late TD passes as the Hurricanes beat Mundelein Carmel 16-15 in Week 7 and Niles Notre Dame 14-7 in Week 8. A 44-21 win against Chicago St. Patrick in the regular-season finale clinched a playoff berth that at one time was, at best, a remote possibility.
Playoff wins against Antioch and Grayslake South have followed.
“They battle because this will be their sixth week in a row that they’re fighting for their lives, and they just keep winning,” Sterling coach Jon Schlemmer said. “They’re battle-tested. From a couple of films that we’ve seen, you could see they were banged-up early in the year, but their coaching staff did a great job of kind of holding it together, and they had some big wins toward the end of the year. Obviously they’re getting healthy now, and they’re a really good football team.”
Golembiewski, a 6-foot-4, 175-pound senior, has remained as the team’s QB since the Benet game. He has completed 106 of 183 passes for 1,523 yards, with 13 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. The 6-1, 210-pound Scott is primarily a running back, with 163 carries for 979 yards and 11 TDs, but he also takes some snaps at QB, primarily out of the Wildcat formation. He has completed 32 of 51 passes for 410 yards, with nine touchdowns and three interceptions.
“You’ve got a kid who’s going to run the ball in [Scott], who’s also very capable of throwing it too,” Schlemmer said. “He’s a bigger-bodied kid, and probably one of the better players we’ve seen all year. Then [Golembiewski], if that’s their third-string quarterback, he’s awfully good. He sticks out on film because he can really sling it, and he’s got guys on the perimeter who can go make plays for him.”
The top target is Bryce Radcliffe, who has 42 receptions for 542 yards and eight scores. Ricciardi has 21 catches for 346 yards and three TDs, while Kramer has added 17 grabs for 422 yards and four touchdowns.
“They kind of run similar stuff to us, with their veer game and their draws, and they can even throw it a little bit too,” Sterling junior safety Isaiah Ryan said. “We’ve just got to know our roles, and be a team.”
Sterling (11-0), meanwhile, has been a wrecking machine all season, outscoring its opponents 501-79. The Warriors have allowed a touchdown or less in 8 of 11 games, and haven’t really been tested since a two-touchdown win against Sycamore to begin the season.
“They’re a very well-balanced, talented team,” Marian coach Mike Maloney said. “They’ve got several weapons on offense that we have to account for. They are very sound, well-coached, fundamental-based defense that presents a challenge for us.
“It starts with their tailback [Nyrel Sullivan]. He’s a heck of a player. The quarterback [Trey Morse] does a nice job operating the system. He’s a running threat. He’s probably one of the better dual-purpose quarterbacks that we’ve seen all year. He can throw the ball.
“Defensively, they do a nice job with their defensive ends. Their inside linebackers are solid players. They’re balanced. There’s really no one area that we can pick on or manipulate. They do a nice job.”
Sullivan is the top offensive threat for Sterling with 192 carries for 1,611 yards and 31 touchdowns. Morse is next with 83 rushes for 541 yards and three TDs.
Morse has also been an effective passer (68-for-103, 1,050 yards, 13 TDs, 2 INTs), but the preferred mode of travel will be on the ground.
“I think we’ve just got to stick to our plan that we’ve had every week and run the ball first,” Morse said. “The O-line has done a tremendous job up to this point, creating holes, communicating, and doing what they’ve got to do to help us out. I think as the offensive line goes, we’ll go.”
For the Golden Warriors, this will be the seventh opportunity in program history to advance past the quarterfinals; they have third-round losses in 1991, 1994, 1995, 1999, 2006 and 2016. The 29-22 loss last season to Sycamore – a team Sterling crushed to begin the 2016 season – is still fresh on the players’ minds.
“We talk about it every day in the locker room, remembering last year against Sycamore,” Morse said. “It’s in the back of our minds, and I think that’s really fueled our fire. We know what it feels like to lose in the quarterfinals, and we want to end this season with a win, not a loss like we did last year. It really motivates us.”
“Our kids know what’s going on,” Schlemmer added, “but it’s not going to change the way we prep, and it’s not going to change the way we approach anything. It is a big thing. I want to get past the quarterfinals just as much as anybody does, but it’s not going to come easy. It’s going to come with our toughest game of the year.”
Notes: Marian is 2-0 in the playoffs against Sterling, with a 46-27 win in the first round of the 2007 postseason, and a 38-17 victory in the second round in 2014. ... Overall, Marian is 59-22 in the playoffs in 27 appearances. Its first six times in the postseason were in Class 2A, with wins over area opponents Polo (1983-84), Amboy (1986) and Morrison (1987) during that stretch. Amboy defeated Marian in the 1984 semifinals on its way to a state championship. ... Marian has four state championships (1983, 1986, 1987 and 1989). ... Sterling has a 22-29 record in 30 playoff appearances.
Class 5A quarterfinals
Sterling at Woodstock Marian
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Marian H.S., Woodstock
Radio: 94.3 FM
Twitter: @BrianWeidman, @DanWoessner