A natural defensive back, the senior from St. Charles North Alex Valenzuela is big and physical. He can play inside the box like a safety, but he runs in coverage like a corner.
In new defensive coordinator Keith Snyder’s scheme, however, Valenzuela appears as an outside linebacker. You don’t need a penny to make him think about it.
“I don’t like to call myself a linebacker,” Valenzuela said. “It’s more like a nickel.”
Whatever the label, one thing is certain this season. No matter where Valenzuela lines up on the field, he continues to make big plays for the North Stars.
It also helped fourth-seeded St. Charles North (10-1) to advance to a Saturday 1:00 p.m. home game in the Class 7A state quarterfinals against 12th-seeded St. Rita (9-2).
Valenzuela had his third interception of the season in Saturday’s 25-9 second-round win over Hoffman Estates. Heading into the playoffs, he was tied for second on the team in tackles for loss with eight.
“We’re putting him in a position to make plays,” said the St. Charles North, Rob Pomazak. “A lot of his tackles for loss are perimeter plays. He does a good job of seeing the field, and is an excellent tackler in the open field.
“He is a very intelligent football player. He has the physique of a contributor. It is often a mismatch. You have to game plan for him.”
Pomazak cited Valenzuela’s interception as one of the biggest keys to Saturday’s win.
The North Stars went on an 18-3 run in the second half, but Hoffman Estates had a strong tailwind in the third quarter. Still, Pomazak wanted to steal a touchdown.
At halftime, Valenzuela was told to sit on the curl route. When that was over, he caught the pass and ran 45 yards. With a short field, the North Stars scored quickly.
“We talked about making the adjustment,” Valenzuela said. “They were right about that, so it was my game. After that, you could tell a little bit of the tension was eased.
“It was a good moment in general for the team. At that point, you don’t realize how big it is until the game is over.”
Putting athletes like Valenzuela in position to make plays like this has been a big part of St. Louis’ 10-game winning streak. Charles North.
It’s also what Snyder, a former DeKalb head coach, has brought to the program.
“It’s a leap of faith to make a change like that, but we were looking for someone to be the head coach of the defense,” Pomazak said. “He brings a professional attitude.
“He’s incredibly prepared, he’s great with the kids and he’s an excellent teacher. I couldn’t be happier with the fit.”
Valenzuela confirmed that it was an adjustment at first.
“We had some trouble coming in, a little doubt, but we followed what our coaches told us and it’s been great,” Valenzuela said. “It’s amazing how far we’ve come from the first game.”
The North Stars do it in waves at all three levels of defense.
Angelo Bradley and Soren Erickson anchor the line. Ryan Daley, Valenzuela and Aidan Zocher man the middle. Drew Surges and John Vendl help block the back end.
“I feel like we’re as physical and athletic as anybody,” Pomazak said. “Everyone is a strong bond. That’s why we’ve been such a good defense. The defense we’ve played this year is second to none.”
This defense will be tested once again by St. Rita, which is led by dynamic junior runner DJ Stewart.
“They’re a very similar team to ours,” Pomazak said. “This game will be the marquee game at state. It’s a quality state championship.”
Valenzuela is ready for the challenge.
“It’s definitely a great opportunity,” Valenzuela said. “Our coaches always tell us if we’re not excited about the opportunity it’s not big enough.
“This is definitely one we’ve all been waiting for.”
Paul Johnson is a freelance reporter for The Beacon-News.