Dom Battaglia cradled the District 88 trophy like a newborn, tracing his fingers over Willowbrook wins gone by.
This latest victory is one to cherish.
The Warriors, 0-9 a year ago, capped a remarkable turnaround by beating District 88 rival Addison Trail 42-28 on Friday in Addison to clinch their first playoff berth since 2007.
"Ever since freshman year we've wanted the playoffs," said third-year starter Battaglia, "and we got it. We've worked hard for it, went through a hard season last year. This year we worked at it and got it done."
Addison Trail (2-6, 1-4 West Suburban Gold), owner of the trophy the last four years, didn't give it up without a fight.
Spotting Willowbrook (6-2, 4-1) leads of 14-0 and 21-7, the Blazers tied it 21-21 with 6:06 left in the third quarter on a 49-yard Alex Glowacki touchdown run.
Willowbrook, backed up to its 14 after a muffed kickoff, answered with a tide-turning drive. First Brian Johnson found Battaglia for 17 yards on third-and-14. Four plays later, Devin Childress went high to haul in a 28-yard gain on third-and-9. Two plays later, the Warriors cashed in, Battaglia taking a misdirection play down the left sideline for a 26-yard touchdown and 28-21 lead.
"We've got a few teams on that play. We work on it all the time and obviously it's a great play," said Battaglia, who had 134 total yards rushing and receiving. "That drive we came out and did what we should have done."
"That drive broke our back a little bit," Addison Trail coach Paul Parpet said. "They made plays when they had to make plays. We didn't."
The Warriors didn't let up, Brandon Smith scoring from 2 yards out. Later Hayden Adams picked off his second pass of the night, taking it 33 yards to paydirt to make it 42-21.
Willowbrook coach Nick Hildreth, Warriors Class of 2000, knows well the significance of the District 88 game from his playing days. Now he has his alma mater back in the playoffs in his second season.
"It took a special group of seniors," Hildreth said, "to go from 0-9 as juniors to come back and put in the work in the off-season. They never hesitated, they never questioned what they were asked to do, and we have an unbelievable coaching staff."
Willowbrook will have a few things to clean up as it readies for the postseason. Johnson, 15 of 23 for 235 yards with a touchdown pass to Battaglia and touchdown run, was intercepted 3 times. A lost fumble toward the end of the first half cost the Warriors a golden scoring opportunity, and Willowbrook committed 10 penalties.
Hildreth's charges stayed the course.
"We didn't come out and play well today, we're not going to settle, we got some things to shore up," Hildreth said. "The thing I will say is all season they don't stop fighting."
Jeremy Barnes ran for 97 yards on 24 carries with a first-quarter touchdown for Willowbrook.
Glowacki ran for 113 yards on 15 carries and two scores for Addison Trail. Matt Gontarek, 8 of 17 for 161 yards, completed 6 of the passes to promising fellow sophomore Javvion Bradley. Bradley caught a 49-yard touchdown pass late in the game, had three long gainers to set up earlier scores and also picked off a pass on defense.
"Give them credit -- Willowbrook has a high-powered offense and it's not easy to stop," Parpet said. "The things that they do well are things we struggled at all year. Secondary, speed, those are the things we've struggled with all year. Unless we play a perfect game we don't stand a chance."