Armani Forrest’s first interception last week came against a deep ball close to the end zone.
When he returned his second interception 35 yards for a touchdown, it gave Normal West High School a 19-point lead in the fourth quarter.
“They were both important, obviously,” the 5-foot-8 junior said of his two picks that helped the Wildcats reach the second round of the Class 6A playoffs for the first time in three years. “I’m just trying to get my team the win so I’m going to go 100 percent on defense all the time.”
The 43-30 home triumph over Blue Island Eisenhower moved West to 8-2 and into Saturday’s 2 p.m. matchup with perennial power Providence in New Lenox.
“We knew that if we won that game, we weren’t going to be the underdogs anymore,” said Forrest. “Everybody thinks we’re just a young team and we don’t have enough to beat a lot of good teams in the playoffs. We’re just trying to show them that we can.”
A win over the Celtics (6-4) would earn the No. 8-ranked and No. 5-seeded Wildcats the school’s first trip to the quarterfinals.
“We’re happy we’re in the position we are; we lived for seven more days,” said West coach Darren Hess. “We’re excited about the opportunity to go up and play Providence and really test to see where our program is.”
West’s calling card has been a potent offense chock-full of players with explosive talent. CJ Davis ran for 169 yards last week, becoming the fourth different Wildcat runner to eclipse the century mark.
Yet while West’s scoring average is up nearly eight points over last year (to 45.3 from 37.4), the defense has improved even more by trimming close to 12 points off the previous mark (25.5 from 37.2).
“We’re more experienced as a team; there’s a lot more seniors,” said linebacker Garrett Sheehan, who had eight tackles last week and leads the team with 74. “The coaching is more intense and upbeat. We’re just having a lot of fun out there.”
Fellow linebacker Holden Lueck follows right behind Sheehan with 70 tackles, including 5½ for lost yardage. Sophomore nose guard Skyler Hufeld adds 66 stops while Forrest’s team-high six interceptions include two runbacks.
“This time of year, you’ve got to be playing good defensive football if you’re going to move on,” said Hess. “I’m very pleased with how that’s transgressed throughout the season and definitely we’re going to need it on Saturday.”
The defense likely will have to rise to the occasion against 13th-seeded Providence, a program that owns 10 state championships. A member of the Chicago Catholic Conference’s Blue Division that sent four of its five teams to the playoffs, the Celtics won five straight games in the middle of a regular season that concluded with a 35-34 loss to Chicago Mount Carmel.
But they bounced back with a 31-12 first-round upset of Oak Lawn Richards in which they scored the first 24 points.
“You’ve got to respect what they are as a program, but you can’t be in awe of it,” said Hess. “We’re here for a reason and they’re here for a reason.”
Star running back De’Shon Gavin, a 6-foot, 180-pound Western Illinois recruit, is 10 yards shy of 1,000. Richards made him the focus of their defense and held him to 54 yards only to get burned by Celtics quarterback Caden Kalinowski, who dashed off 174 yards on seven carries with scoring runs of 73 and 38 yards.
“I run all around the field, so it’s nothing to me,” Forrest said of having to keep an eye on Kalinowski. “We’ve just got to stop the running back; he’s big. But other than that I think we’re good.”
Minnesota recruit Mariano Sori-Marin (6-2, 225) tops a Providence linebacking corps that includes Sam Rost and Logan Anderson. Dylan Davalos (6-1, 280) anchors the D-line while Steven Meyer captains the secondary.
“We have to take advantage of our speed,” said Hess. “I think they do outmatch us in size, but our speed has gotten us where we are and I feel like if we can get them one-on-one we can take advantage of that.”
The winner will advance to face either St. Laurence (7-3) or Hinsdale South (6-4).