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The topic of the week in Monticello: the Williamsville defense. Questions abounded between Sages players and fans on the team from the Sangamo Conference that no one knew much about.
Could the Bullets’ defensive unit really be that good? How are they putting up those ridiculous numbers (seven shutouts, 22 points allowed all season)? Will senior running back Ryan Donohue be able to continue his excellent season against a front eight that can match his combination of power and speed? Will the Sages’ offense move the ball at all?
Williamsville brought that vaunted defense to Monticello and readily answered all those questions in front of a large Saturday crowd, most of which had kicked off the playoff party hours before kickoff.
The Bullets pitched their eighth shutout of the season, blanking Monticello 14-0 in the second round of the Class 3A playoffs and ending the Sages’ season at the same point as a year ago.
“We were able to contain them,” Williamsville coach Aaron Kunz said. “I said we’re going to have to make them sustain long drives and we were able to keep them out of the end zone. They got close a couple times, but it was a great, hard-hitting football game and I’m proud of our guys.”
The two teams were mirror images of one another, both in appearance and style of play. Williamsville, whose colors are purple and gold like the Sages’, emerged from the locker room in their usual gold helmets to cheers from its fans and a few Monticello loyalists who mistook the Bullets for their hometown team. The Sages also wore a gold helmet with the block ‘M’ on the side, while Williamsville sports a large ‘W’.
But it was the teams’ identities that showed how similar these two football squads were. Both boast strong, fast defenses while relying on a steady running game and a 6-foot-2 quarterback (senior Parker Trice for Monticello and junior Josh Lindsey for Williamsville) who is asked to keep the defense honest with his arm.
With teams so close in talent and coaching, it’s often just a handful of plays that decide the game. The Bullets made them Saturday.
Williamsville junior Jacob Lounsberry capped a seven-play, three-minute drive on a 13-yard run to put the visitors up 7-0 with 5:53 left in the first quarter.
“Jacob has been really, really good for us all year,” Kunz said. “I said last year when he started for us as a sophomore, he's got a motor like no other kid that we've coached. He just goes and goes and goes. He's a little crazy that way.
“He was huge today. They were running option today and he did his job. He didn't get sucked in, he took the quarterback when he needed to.”
Neither team would find the end zone again until Lindsey found senior Clinton Fletcher for an 18-yard TD pass to seal the Bullets’ victory with 1:23 left in the game.
“I got to breathe a little bit with that touchdown,” Kunz said. “It was tight. I thought we could have gotten in a couple times earlier. We fumbled down there close (in the third quarter) and I thought we were at least going to end up with a field goal to give us some breathing room.
“I've got to give our kids credit. They’re tough kids. They’ve battled for four years to get here and we’re just trying to take that next step.”
Kunz was a little surprised by the play call that led to the final TD.
"I've got to give our offense a lot of credit, Coach (Adam) Ibbotson – when I heard he called that play-action pass, I about tackled him," he said. "But he was right, and really our tight end was wide open, but we went to Fletcher and the kid made a hell of a play."
The lost art of defense
Both defenses came to play as neither offense could move the ball consistently. Monticello (8-3) managed 126 yards of total offense, while Williamsville (11-0) gained 241.
Sages tailback Donohue finished with a season-low 48 yards on 14 carries, and quarterback Price never found a rhythm, completing 5 of 19 passes for 47 yards and an interception.
“Their defense is tremendous,” Donohue said. “They’ve allowed 22 points against everyone they’ve played. There’s not a better defense in the state I don’t think.”
“It just seemed like we couldn’t get anything established,” Monticello coach Cully Welter said. “That’s been the story of our three losses this year, and this was probably the toughest of the three in terms of getting the ball moved.”
Kunz said the Bullets keyed in on Donohue, knowing they had to stop the talented running back to stop the Sages' offense.
"Up front, our front eight, are pretty nasty. We won the battle up front," he said. "(Donohue's) an amazing player, but it's hard to run inside the tackles on us. It has been all year. He's a special player. We always knew where he was.
"Our front four were disciplined. They played great football today, and our linebackers were good as they've been."
Lounsberry led the Bullets with 14 tackles (seven solo) and a sack. Jacob Weiss finished with 11 tackles, Ozzie Kent 10 and Alex Dickerman nine for Williamsville.
"The defense held strong. They've been our bread and butter this year," Kunz said. "Last year, we scored a lot more points, but this year it's been our defense that's gotten the glory."
Sages defense bridges the gap
Monticello forced four Williamsville turnovers, bringing the Sages total to 10 in their two playoff games this season.
" The turnovers were bad. Obviously that killed us (offensively)," Kunz said. "We haven't had many turnovers. It's something we're going to have to address this week. If we want to win next week, we're going to have to get that taken care of."
The senior-laden unit has been the backbone of this Monticello team, never wavering despite the offense's struggles at times this season.
Sophomore linebacker Clay Becker led the Sages defense with 11 tackles. Senior Austin Eckerty had an interception and a fumble recovery for Monticello, while Ryan Bidner (interception) and Austin McCall (fumble recovery) helped the Sages force four Williamsville turnovers.
“I've always thought our defense was one of the best. We have so many athletes that fly to the ball and give us so much speed on defense,” Donohue said. “We knew that our offense wasn't getting it done, so our defense stepped up and tried to get it done for them.
“We tried to keep our heads up. I felt like this is definitely one of the hardest games I've ever played and our team has ever played. They're a great team, they have a great defense, and there was nothing we could do about it.”
Monticello won the turnover battle 4-1, but couldn't capitalize on the opportunity.
“We’re all brothers. We’re all there for each other no matter what happens,” said Monticello senior Vinny Strack, who recorded nine tackles and a sack. “The time that we’ve built with each other will stay with us for the rest of our lives. It’s hard for anybody, especially us seniors. Even the juniors, they hate watching people go. I was in that position last year. It sucks.”
Strack said he wouldn’t trade this season for the world.
“It’s all worth it,” he said. “Waking up at six in the morning – just the brotherhood that everybody brings makes it a whole lot better.”
Welter, in his 20th year coaching, offered some advice for his team after the loss.
"In all honesty I'd love to be in the state championship every year, but for me more and more it's just about the relationships with the kids," he said. "It's always been that way, but it gets more and more ingrained in me as I get older.
"I just feel bad for them. I wish I could have done more for them because you only get to play a couple years. At the end of the day, 11 weeks or 14 weeks, it's a great experience to play high school football and I hope all the time they put into it was worth it for them."
Bullets moving on
Jak Loutzenhiser was the lone offensive bright spot in the defensive battle. The Bullets senior running back notched for 108 yards on 20 carries, breaking plenty of tackles to keep Williamsville’s final scoring drive going.
Williamsville will face another Okaw Valley team in the next round of the playoffs. Second-seeded Unity (10-1), which defeated Pleasant Plains 22-7 Saturday, will be the next group to take a crack at solving the moving puzzle that is the Bullets’ defense.
“They’re a great program, one of the best programs in 3A,” Kunz said of Unity. “We’re going to have a little bit of fun here for a couple hours and then get ready to go. We really respect Tolono and we’ll have to get after it this week.”