Transforming a losing football culture takes time.
About three years, judging by what coach Vito Andriola is accomplishing at Dundee-Crown.
A generation of football players from 1995 through last year's 3-6 team passed through the Carpentersville school without experiencing a winning season, but that dynamic is likely to change this fall. Though a winning record and a playoff berth are far from guaranteed after three successful weeks, D-C is 3-0 for the first time in 20 years and has the all the earmarks of a program on the rise.
"It's really exciting," said TJ Moss, a three-year varsity running back. "Everyone is talking about going to the football games, about how we're going to do this week, talking about the playoffs. All the Superfans are going crazy."
Invigorated by last week's 14-13 homecoming victory over Crystal Lake South, a school D-C had beaten once since 1999, the Chargers are poised to challenge defending league champion Cary-Grove (1-2, 1-0) this Friday. In fact, Dundee-Crown (3-0, 1-0) -- one year after it snapped a 26-game losing streak -- could position itself as a favorite in the FVC Valley with a win.
Building the Chargers to the brink of title contention hasn't been easy. The D-C administration knew that would be the case following an 0-9 season in 2010, which is why principal Lynn McCarthy and athletic director Dick Storm hired Andriola at the recommendation of the school's search committee in February of 2011. His hiring came one year after District 300 sister school, Jacobs, made the bold move to hire retired hall-of-fame coach Bill Mitz to rejuvenate its football program.
Andriola was the perfect fit for D-C. Not only was he a resident of West Dundee, he was an experienced program builder. He took over at Grayslake High School in 2001 and went 2-7 his first year. In 2002, the Rams finished 4-5.
Grayslake broke through in Andriola's third season -- sound familiar D-C fans? -- as the Rams went 8-3, made the playoffs for the first time in 13 years and won the first playoff game in school history.
Turning the Dundee-Crown football program into a winner has proved far more difficult than building a successful program at Grayslake, said Andriola, who called the process "the hardest thing I've done in my life."
There was resistance from the start at D-C. During Andriola's first season, a group calling itself "Friends of Dundee-Crown football" wrote letters complaining about the new coach to McCarthy, Storm and other District 300 personnel and mailed copies to the Daily Herald. The rambling, barely coherent rants criticized the new coach for playing too many sophomores and discarding seniors who had spent time in the program.
Andriola said he did what he had to do to build the program into a contender. He opted to mold the impressionable younger players, saying they gave D-C its best chance to win. Feelings were hurt when the new coach made tough decisions like that, but it was an inevitable part of culture change. His first D-C team finished 0-9, but two years later it's hard to argue with the tactic.
Some other players chose not to return to the football program at all, scared off by those who warned of Andriola's reputation for "coaching hard," a badge the coach wears with honor.
"It's about holding kids accountable for what they're doing, asking them to give more than what they're giving in practice." Andriola said of his style. "And that's a never-ending battle at Dundee-Crown. We're not a football school by any means. What I know as going hard and what the players think is going hard sometimes conflict.
"I don't know what anybody else does but we do coach hard. That's the only way I know how to coach. I thanked my principal for her support all through this because if we didn't coach the way we did, there's no way we would have beaten Crystal Lake South. No doubt in my mind at all, we wouldn't have won. Because you have to prepare them."
The players who bought into Andriola's approach now understand why their coach pushes them to practice hard at all times.
"I like the way he coaches us. Even though sometimes it's really hard, you just have to push through it." senior defensive back Sam Franckowiak said. "At times when we're conditioning and doing extra stuff I'm not so thrilled about it. But who is? In the end it's exactly what we need.
"And he doesn't just focus on the field. He makes sure we get it done in the classroom and in the hallways, too, which I think is a big part of how he coaches. He made a big impact on me specifically with a lot of guidance. A lot of other kids, too."
One of the biggest on-field impacts has come from Andriola's insistence upon off-season weight training nine months a year.
"Pretty much everybody who isn't on (another sport) is there three days a week," Moss said of the off-season workouts. "We've gotten a lot stronger. Sophomore year I was one of the strongest guys on the team, stronger than a lot of the starting linemen. Now, I'm not even close."
The strict lifting regimen has resulted in bigger, stronger players who were able to compete toe-to-toe last week with a CL South offensive line that rivals some collegiate units in size.
"They've been playing hard since Vito's gotten there and they've played hard for a long time, but they look thicker and faster than they've been," Cary-Grove coach Brad Seaburg said. "So now you've got the combination of them playing hard and getting better physically. Hence, they're having the success that they're having."
The Chargers can compete with all six teams remaining on their schedule, which means a playoff berth is a realistic possibility regardless of Friday's outcome against the reigning Class 6A state runner-up. All D-C has to do is win 3 of its last 6 games to guarantee its spot in the postseason for the first time since 1994.
"I think we have a chance," Andriola said of gaining a playoff spot. "We have to take care of business and win the games we're supposed to win, and we have to win one or two that could go either way."
Considering the Chargers finished 0-9 in both 2010 and 2011, qualifying for the playoffs would represent a monumental transformation from a losing football culture to a winning one.