Team player that he is, Sebastian Cheeks accepted the decision when Evanston head football coach Mike Burzawa told him he’d only be playing on one side --- on defense --- this season.
But Evanston’s return to two-platoon football couldn’t keep Cheeks out of the end zone.
The sophomore linebacker returned two interceptions for touchdowns and set up another score with a strip sack of St. Patrick’s quarterback that resulted in a fumble in the end zone as part of a dominating defensive performance in a 38-0 trouncing of the Shamrocks in the season opener at Lazier Field Friday night.
An astonishing four scores by the defense turned Evanston’s season debut into a romp in front of a near-capacity crowd that also celebrated the selection of the latest Hall of Fame athletic class at the school.
How remarkable were those four scores by the defense --- three on interception returns? Burzawa, who coached three state championship teams at Driscoll Catholic and has coached for 23 years overall, said he’s never been part of a team that scored four times on defense in one game.
For most of Burzawa’s tenure at ETHS, the Wildkits have gone entire seasons without scoring that much on D.
Cheeks proved Friday night that you don’t have to be an offensive starter to be a playmaker. He scored on interception runbacks covering 30 and 31 yards, and senior DeVaughn Bell added a dazzling 82-yard run after a pick early in the fourth quarter.
“We didn’t execute the way we wanted to tonight on offense, but the defense was awesome!” Burzawa said. “I still have a vision of 11 guys in orange helmets meeting at the football. The kids came out and really did the job. Tonight was our night.
“Coach (Eddie) Conley and his staff really had the kids ready to go on defense. We played with passion and we felt we had to play fast and play with toughness. This is just step 1 --- but I couldn’t be more proud of our kids.”
Cheeks and fellow sophomores Sean Cruz, Mark Canon Jr. and Kamau Ransom all played a role in the victory. Technically it wasn’t Cheeks’ first varsity game --- he actually recovered a fumble in last year’s Class 8A state playoff loss to Edwardsville --- but the most amazing thing about the four sophomores is that they didn’t even play up on the sophomore squad as freshmen.
Canon Jr. contributed an interception late in the first half and Cruz completed 6-of-8 passes for 92 yards, including a 65-yard touchdown bomb to Peter Braithwaite.
“When Buzz said I was only going to play one way this year I just said OK, whatever’s best for the team,” said the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Cheeks. “I also thought if I can’t score on offense, I’ll just have to find a way on defense.
“I just wanted to get a win for the team tonight. I always put the team first. We came out a little sluggish on offense at first, so when I came back out on the field I thought I’ve got to get a turnover. I was spying on the quarterback and I kinda knew where he’d throw it from watching film. I knew what he liked to do and where he wanted to put it.
“On the fumble, I knew he was going to drop back, and I got the strip and thankfully, Judel Vilus fell on it. I believe our defense has a lot going for us this year and we just need all 11 guys rallying to the ball --- all the time!”
Evanston’s defense made life miserable for St. Patrick’s senior quarterback, Aidan Larson, all night. The lefty completed 13-of-26 passes with 4 picks and a total of just 71 yards, and he was sacked four times by ETHS standouts Vilus (twice), Cheeks and Jamari Jenkins.
“Cheeks really ignited things for us,” Burzawa praised. “He has great instincts, he played fast and he executed tonight. We were able to hit them with some heavyweight punches there early in the game on back-to-back plays. Those big plays were really fantastic for us.”
Evanston led 3-0 on a 38-yard field goal by Fredrick Eberhart, and just two plays later Cheeks anticipated a pass over the middle of the field by Larson, grabbed it and dashed 30 yards to paydirt. The Wildkits built the lead to 17-0 by halftime on a perfectly executed play-action fake by quarterback Cruz that led to a long TD toss to Braithwaite.