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Bend-don’t-break defense helps Wheaton North win Class 7A state title

DeKALB — Wheaton North’s defense didn’t have the best start on Saturday, but how it finished is the reason why the Falcons succeeded all season and won a state title.

St. Rita reached the red zone on each of its first two drives in the Class 7A title game, but the Falcons held the Mustangs to two field goal attempts, both of which missed.

That bend-don’t-break approach has been something Wheaton North’s defensive players have used all season, and on Saturday, it helped the Falcons win their first state title since 1986 with a 35-6 victory over the Mustangs.

“That bend-don’t-break mentality is something that we pride ourselves on,” linebacker Ross Dansdill said. “We like to call it swarming to the football, when all open bodies bust their butt to the ball, no matter what happens, just get there, don’t be lazy and make plays happen.”

Wheaton North players and coaches knew they faced a tall task in St. Rita’s offense.

The Mustangs averaged 37 points in their four playoff victories leading up to Saturday and featured many different talented weapons, including Ohio State commit Kaleb Brown.

Those numbers didn’t scare the Falcons. Wheaton North created a game plan where it limited St. Rita to its lowest point total of the season.

The key for the Falcons was limiting Brown. They knew the versatile player could hurt them in different spots, which is why eliminating him from the game was a big objective.

“We definitely knew that he was going to be the focal point for us,” Wheaton North coach Joe Wardynski said. “Whether he was in the backfield, the slot or the outside, we knew that’s where we needed to roll our coverage and try to take him away from making big plays. For the most part, we were able to do that tonight.”

St. Rita finished with 72 rushing yards and 189 passing yards and struggled to get into a rhythm. Trent Gabriele added on to those frustrations when he sacked quarterback Tommy Ulatowski and forced a fumble, which he returned for a touchdown to make it 21-0 Wheaton North at halftime.

The Mustangs didn’t score until there was over three minutes left in the third quarter. St. Rita finished the day 5-for-13 on third downs and 0-for-2 on fourth downs.

They never had a chance because of Wheaton North’s system. If a player misses a play, someone else is going to be there to make a play.

“We pick each other up when one person misses,” linebacker Rex Kroger said. “We’ve got four more guys there to make the play and that’s what we’ve done all year. That’s how we’ve been successful.”

It worked until the end.