Cary-Grove seniors Kyle Norberg, Ryan Mahoney, Zach Marszal, Patrick O'Malley and Quinn Baker vividly remember what it was like when the Trojans won the Class 6A state title in Champaign three years ago because they were on the sidelines.
Wide-eyed freshmen then, those five joined the varsity for the 2009 playoffs, practicing daily alongside their idols like quarterback Tyler Krebs, fullback Eric Chandler, running back Alex Hembrey, safety/receiver Chad McCarron and linebacker Nick Underwood, among others.
Norberg actually played a bit on defense in every '09 playoff contest except one: the state championship game. That blank in his ever-expanding resume will soon be filled, thanks to Cary-Grove's 42-21 semifinal victory over host Lake Forest on Saturday.
Norberg, Mahoney, Marszal, O'Malley, Baker and the rest of the Trojans will have the chance to match the 2009 team's undefeated state title when they face Crete-Monee (13-0) for the Class 6A crown at Memorial Stadium next Saturday at 1 p.m.
"Back then I was just kind of soaking it in and enjoying everything," Norberg said of dressing for the '09 title game. "I did make a goal for myself -- I think we all had the same common goal -- try our best to get back here. With hard work for four years, we finally did it. It hasn't really sunk in yet. I'm so happy."
Valuable lessons were learned by those freshmen in '09. Now leaders as seniors themselves, they have instilled those lessons in each of their teammates and are passing them on to the program's underclassmen.
"We were freshmen at that time and they really showed us how to go about Cary-Grove football," Marszal said of the older players. "They taught us that you win with discipline and that it's not about your size, it's about your heart on the field. You just have to have the mentality that you are the best and never be afraid of anybody. I looked up to everyone on that '09 team because they were the team that got it done."
Baker remembers the 2009 team for a more personal reason. His older brother, Hayden, now a second-string center for Northwestern, was the starting center for Cary-Grove's state-title team. Quinn said he lived in awe of the older players back then, particularly Krebs, a fellow option quarterback.
"I can still remember a day when I was in eighth grade and we were going to a quarterback camp in the summer," Baker recalled. "Tyler was going and he ended up driving me both ways that day. I couldn't even believe I was sitting there with my hero. I didn't even know what to say to him.
"Now we're good friends. He coaches us in the summer. I idolize all those guys and I know all those guys because they're all my brother's friends. It's just really special to be where they were -- to be back."
The parallels between the 2012 and 2009 Trojans were everywhere Saturday, particularly on the same field where the '09 team drilled Highland Park 48-28 in a second-round playoff game.
The 2009 Cary-Grove offense excelled on the artificial turf at Lake Forest's west campus that day. Hembrey ran for 212 yards and 4 touchdowns, Krebs gained 106 yards and scored and Chandler added 97 yards and a touchdown.
The 2012 Cary-Grove offense performed equally well on the Lake Forest turf, scoring 42 points and gaining 500 yards on the strength of Mahoney's 197 yards and 2 touchdowns, Norberg's 174 yards and 3 touchdowns and Baker's 85 yards and a score.
Both Cary-Grove teams raced to touchdowns on their first 4 possessions, respectively, on the immaculate artificial surface. It's enough to make a District 155 fan consider installing turf at Cary's Al Bohrer Field someday, particularly in light of Cary-Grove's 7-point output in a quarterfinal victory on that wet, muddy field a week earlier.
"We were commenting on the sideline," smiling second-year coach Brad Seaburg said. "It was like 'This turf's pretty nice, isn't it?' Offensively, we felt we did not perform the way we needed to perform last week. So it was nice for the guys to perform today. I think the field definitely didn't hurt us."
Baker isn't the only legacy player on this year's roster. Multiple players have older brothers who played for the 2009 team. Strong safety Kasey Fields's brother, Jake, was a member of the state title team. Kasey remembers sitting in the Memorial Field grandstand and drawing inspiration from watching his brother play on the state's biggest stage.
"I got a taste and I wanted it so bad," Fields said. "My brother was down there and I had to get down there, too. This is why we've worked so hard for four years. Every second that we work in the summer, the winter and the spring, everything we do is to get to this game. Now we're here and it's awesome. It's unbelievable."
Seaburg, of course, was also present for the 2009 state title game. He was the school's sophomore coach then and an assistant to since-retired head coach Bruce Kay. Under Seaburg's watch the Trojans remain as polished as any team in the state. They execute precisely, they commit few mental errors and they play with speed derived from the confidence of knowing exactly where to position themselves.
Seaburg and his mostly still-intact coaching staff now get the chance to deliver the school's second state title in four seasons.
"It's gratifying in the sense that, as a coach, you put so much time in," Seaburg said. "To work with kids who have so much commitment to a common goal, it's a pretty special accomplishment for me personally, but more importantly for all the coaches and players and everyone involved."
The Trojans will likely dress another group of promising underclassmen for next week's state championship game. Like Norberg and Marszal and the rest in 2009, the younger players likely won't play. But they'll learn, soaking up the lessons being taught both directly and indirectly by the older players.
They should soak it all in. After all, someday they may be the common threads woven into the fabric of a future Cary-Grove state championship game appearance.