After cruising right along for 6 weeks, scoring at least 42 points in each of their first six games while holding teams under 10 points four times, the Sterling Golden Warriors finally hit a bit of a speed bump in Week 7.
But Sterling still came away with the win. In getting a scare from Rochelle while still keeping the unblemished record intact, the Warriors saw firsthand that they are the type of team that can pull out close wins at the buzzer.
“We’re not afraid of a challenge and we can battle adversity, even when our backs are against the wall,” Sterling junior lineman Nate Beyers said.
The 3-point win is the first game Sterling has played that has been decided by a touchdown or less since losing to Sycamore in the 2016 quarterfinal, and the closest game Sterling has been in since beating DeKalb 43-42 in double-overtime in Week 9 of that season.
“You can’t simulate what happened on Friday or Saturday night, you can’t prepare for it without going through it,” Sterling coach Jon Schlemmer said. “The kids responded with some positives.”
Sterling knows well from experience that once the playoffs begin, the games get progressively more difficult, and running clocks in the second half become rare. Playing in a tight game Week 7 showed the Warriors just what they can do when that situation pops up again in a win-or-go-home situation.
“You hope we’re not in a whole lot of fights,” Beyers said. “We go out there and we play hard and, if we get into a fight, we know what we’re doing and we win.”
The next test will come from LaSalle-Peru, when the 3-4 Cavaliers visit Roscoe Eades Stadium on Friday.
“I expect a pretty good fight,” senior lineman Ezra Torres said. “No team’s going to go down easy, but I don’t think it will be anything we can’t accomplish.”
Using its speed and power, LaSalle-Peru comes in averaging 24.6 points per game, including a 41-point outburst against Limestone and a 48-point game against Ottawa. The Cavaliers even scored 33 against Rochelle, the same defense that held Sterling to 23 points on Saturday.
That offense has not been on display as much the past 2 weeks, scoring a total of 15 points in losses to Geneseo and DeKalb, but can still put a defense to the test.
“You’ve got to be sound, and if you’re not sound and do your assignments, they’re going to expose you,” Schlemmer said.
Defensively, the Cavaliers pitched back-to-back shutouts earlier in the season against United Township and Ottawa, but in recent weeks, teams have been moving the ball against them, with Rochelle and DeKalb both reaching the 50-point mark.
“Their defense does a really good job of getting in their gaps and staying in their gaps, and their linebackers do a good job of filling,” Beyers said. “Their defense goes hard. We’ll have to be really good on the O-line this week.”
The biggest task for the line is going to be in sustaining its blocks against a Cavaliers front that likes to show teams a couple of different looks.
“They’re going to challenge you to push the ball vertically,” Schlemmer said. “Their run defense has been pretty good for them. The biggest thing is the physicality that pops out of them.”
Beating LaSalle-Peru would secure the Warriors’ fourth straight NIB-12 West title, with no chance Sterling could be dethroned since the conference itself is disbanding.
“We’re the last people to be in this conference, and to come out with a win would be great,” Beyers said.
”It would be setting in stone what we are and what we stand for,” Torres said.
LaSalle-Peru (3-4) at Sterling (7-0)
When: 7:15 p.m. Friday
Where: Roscoe Eades Stadium, Sterling
Radio: 105.5 FM