The Golden Warriors are boldly going where no Sterling football team has gone before.
But on its way to its first state semifinal game in program history, Sterling is approaching practice as if it’s just another week on the field.
“I think the coaching staff’s done a great job since we won [the quarterfinal] just of getting us focused in on the task at hand,” quarterback Trey Morse said. “We’ve done that all year and realizing not to look past any team. We’ve got a great team coming in here Saturday, so we’ve been working all week just to get going.”
Prior to Saturday’s quarterfinal win over Marian, the Golden Warriors had been to the quarterfinals
six times and lost all six. Now, with every step, the team walks into uncharted territory.
“They’ve never been here and, as a coach, I’ve never been here and our staff’s never been here,” Sterling coach Jon Schlemmer said. “I don’t know if it’s smart or not smart, but we’re just sticking with what we’ve been doing to get us here. We haven’t changed much in our game prep. We’re just continuing to do the things that got us to this point.”
While Sterling has not been this far in the playoffs before, its semifinal opponent has. Chicago Phillips won the Class 4A state title in 2015.
Though most of the starters from that squad were juniors or seniors at the time and have since graduated, Craig Elmore is back. A defensive end on the state championship team, Elmore has switched over to the offensive side of the ball to running back, earning a spot on the Class 5A all-state team released by the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association on Thursday.
“We’ve just got to stop them up front, on the line of scrimmage,” Sterling defensive lineman Payton Sharp said. “If we can force them to pass it and do all of our jobs correctly, we should be fine.”
Sterling has seen powerful run games before, including a 3-week stretch this season against Alleman, LaSalle-Peru and Geneseo. Sterling allowed a total of 15 points in those three games, but this week is different.
“He’s fast and quick and he’s hard to take down,” Sharp said of Elmore. “He’s one of the more physical ones we’ve seen this year. It takes a lot to take him down. So we have to trust our fundamentals.”
Phillips also has an all-state pick on defense in defensive end Terrance Taylor. Taylor and the rest of the Wildcats defense has held teams to an average of 8.5 points per game, and put up three shutouts in a 4-week span earlier in the season. Of the teams that have scored more than 10 points against Phillips, two are still playing: Raby in Class 4A and Loyola Academy in 8A.
“Defensively, they give you a look that you don’t see every day,” Schlemmer said. “They’re really, really good at what they do. They’re coached up really well. They have athletes all over the field. As cliche as it might sound, you’ve got to be able to block first and foremost. You’ve got to be able to identify where they’re at, you have to be able to communicate, because they’re so good at what they do, you’ll be exposed if you don’t know what you’re supposed to do.”
That defense stifled Lemont in the quarterfinal, a 15-3 Wildcats win during which Lemont rushed 18 times and lost yardage or got stopped for no gain on eight of those carries. Lemont’s only score came on a drive on which it lost yardage.
But that defensive line will have to itself contain an all-state running back in Sterling’s Nyrel Sullivan, part of a Golden Warriors offense averaging 44.3 points per game.
“As long as we communicate with our five guys up front, it can be a lot of fun and we can open up some holes up front,” Morse said.
Since the season began, Chicago Phillips has been the No. 1 team in the state in Class 5A. Sterling was No. 3 in that preseason poll back in August, but when Washington lost in Week 2, the Golden Warriors climbed into that No. 2 slot behind Phillips.
Phillips and Sterling have been the top two names on that list ever since.
On Saturday, the two face off in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown at Roscoe Eades Stadium.
“They’re one of the best teams in 5A, so you’ve got to expect the best every time,” Sharp said. “You’ve just got to come out with high intensity and keep it going through the whole game.”
Class 5A semifinals
Chicago Phillips at Sterling
When: 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: Roscoe Eades Stadium, Sterling
Radio: 94.3 FM
Twitter: @Eric_Ingles & @DanWoessner