Wheaton North defense goes on offense to oust Willowbrook

The biggest competition in Friday's first-round Class 7A battle between Wheaton North and Willowbrook came down to whether the Falcons defense could actually steal the spotlight from the team's offense.

The winner of that competition may still be up for some debate, but both sides of the ball excelled as the defending state champs opened up their defense of the crown with a 35-14 defeat of a Willowbrook program that has made a habit of advancing deep in the state playoffs.

Wheaton North (9-1) jumped ahead 7-0 after Walker Owens capped the night's opening drive with a 17-yard touchdown run. The Falcons then used a little trickery for a double-reverse pass that was caught by quarterback Max Houser for a 26-yard score a 14-0 lead and then upped the margin to 21-0 at the half on a 4-yard run by Tyler O'Connor, who splits time with Howser behind center.

It's easy to get excited about the offensive firepower, but Wheaton North - now 22-2 over the last two years - has a dominant defense and it was on display Friday against the Warriors. Willowbrook (5-5) had just one first down and 8 yards of offense in the first half, and the Falcons' first-team defense was just as good, if not better, in the second half.

On the first play of the second half, senior safety Karsten Libby jumped a Willowbrook pass and returned an interception 17 yards for a 28-0 lead. It was the first of two picks by Libby and the first of three by the hosts in the second half as the sixth-seeded Falcons built a 35-0 lead.

The Warriors scored twice on passes from Willowbrook quarterback Arthur Palicki late in the fourth quarter with the outcome already sealed.

"This is a great way to start the playoffs and that interception was a great way to start the second half," said Libby, who just last week recorded his first interception of the year and now has three. "Last year they gave us our toughest game in the playoffs and we know they've made it to the quarterfinals like six years in a row. We also know that defense wins championships."

Wheaton North coach Joe Wardynski was thrilled with the way his team defended against the Warriors on Friday, especially considering they lost star linebacker Ross Dansdill to injury a couple weeks back and won't get him back this year.

"The defense played great tonight," Wardynski said. "A lot of kids stepped up and all three levels of the defense played really well. They wanted to throw a lot and spread us out, but we got a lot of pressure up front and the backers and the secondary played great."

On one sequence late in the first half, defensive end Joe Barna stopped Palicki for a short gain, then shared sacks with teammates on the next two plays. He also recorded back-to-back sacks in the first quarter.

"Karsten's interception (touchdown) fired us up, but we had a lot of guys step up on the defense tonight," Barna said.

Willowbrook coach Nick Hildreth, who played 11 sophomores quite a bit, could only tip his hat to the Falcons.

"We hung in there a bit, but we dropped a few passes and we couldn't move the chains and then they hit us with a double reverse pass for a touchdown," he said. "They're 8-1 and the state champs so we couldn't afford to let those things happen. But our senior class has been through so much the last four years and I'm so proud of them, with everything they accomplished."

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