How could a program that had amassed 40 wins over three seasons and was playing in its second state championship in three seasons have anything to prove to itself heading into Saturday's Class 8A title game?
Well, sometimes you have to self motivate. And that's exactly what the Lincoln-Way East defensive unit decided heading into that contest, feeling as the amount of love showered on the opponent's defense from Gurnee Warren should have at the very least should have had some of it centered on them as well.
Then they went about the business of proving why.
Warren finished with just 36 total yards of offense in the contest during Lincoln-Way East's 12-0 victory and eight of the Blue Devils 12 possessions went for negative yardage. The Griffins forced eight three-and-outs and Warren had just three first downs in the entire game.
"We try not to get involved in the rat poison and stuff, but sometimes you have to keep in that back of your mind," defensive end Sean McLaughlin said. "They are really good team, and I'm not taking anything away from them, but we know that we had the best defense in the state. We were more well-rounded and we had more speed and we just went out and proved it."
Division I defensive end recruits McLaughlin (Northwestern) and Adrian Wilson (Bowling Green) earned all the deserved attention they got as the bedrock of the Griffins defense. And while few managed to penetrate the Griffins front line of attack, if someone somehow managed to complete the feat, odds are Jake Kramer was going to be there to make sure no further damage was done.
Kramer finished with just three tackles on Saturday, but was always around the ball. And that was nothing out of the ordinary for a player that is now the school's all-time leading tackler. He also took on the role of motivator for the rest of the defense heading into the Warren contest.
"We have a group chat with all the starters and two-deep rotational guys on defense. And every single day all I sent was pictures of the Warren guys, pictures of their scores, newspaper articles about them being the best defense in the state," Kramer said. "And every single rep in practice this week if a guy was dogging, if a guy was tired, we harder on that extra rep because all of we had was the notion that Warren was the best defense. I'm being a little selfish for our guys, but we were a little unappreciated for our defense, I don't think no one gave us what we deserved."
"We wanted to prove a point, we call our defense the black shirts, because in practice we have the black shirts and the offense wears white," Kramer said. "You don't want one of the white ones those are the soft little guys that don't like to get hit. We have the mantra of black shirts, we're one family and we're a black flag, and we want to get after it. We knew it was one last ride with the black shirts and we had to be great."
Lincoln-Way East coach Rob Zvonar was aware his defensive unit entered the game with a bit of a chip on its shoulder and he's willing to admit the coaching staff tried to keep it there.
"Our biggest challenge was to our guys that when we get done with this game, we don't want our offense to be saying that's the best defense we've ever seen," Lincoln-Way East coach Rob Zvonar said. "We want our offense to say that the best defense we saw was during camp, and two-a-days and all during practice."
And they got the contributions from everywhere defensive lineman Jaron Hacha and Zach Richter chipped in and Jalen Hacha led the team with six tackles, recorded a tackle for loss and collected an interception. But none of that was a surprise to Zvonar who knew the value of not only having great talent, but also of having a unit that played like a well-oiled cohesive unit down the stretch.
"It's kind of an intangible thing when you talk about 11 playing as one, but it really truly happens when you just trust the guy next to you to do their job so you really only have to focus on yours," Zvonar said.
In the end Lincoln-Way East's defense did what it expected from itself on the season's biggest stage and resolutely answered a question that is no longer up for debate.
"We wanted to be the defense that carried everybody, we didn't want people talking about Lincoln-Way's offense, we wanted them talking about Lincoln-Way's defense," McLaughlin said.
And that they did.