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It was a sunny Saturday afternoon at Chicago's Lane Stadium in October of 2010, and the St. Edward football team was well on its way to the first playoff win in school history.
Led by quarterback Ben Lehman and receiver Sam Pozezinski, No. 9 seed St. Edward was blowing out No. 8 Chicago Uplift, 44-8. Coach Mike Rolando emptied his bench in the second half and everyone on the Green Wave roster played, including a handful of freshmen brought up to experience the playoff atmosphere.
One such freshman was Mikey Castoro, a scrappy defensive back who then weighed all of 115 pounds, pads included. Castoro made a tackle late in that game, which remains the lone playoff win in St. Edward history. Other wide-eyed freshmen who got a chance to play that day included Collin Holte, Zach West and Tighe Koerhing.
Fast forward three years and those players are now seniors at the core of a 3-2 team, one seemingly poised to make a playoff return for the first time in three years.
"That's been our goal since freshman year, to bring the program back to that state. It's really important to us." Castoro said.
"We'd all like the opportunity to play in a playoff game again and win it for our own team," Holte added.
Though the outlook is sunny now, St. Edward's playoff aspirations took a hit two weeks ago with a 21-17 home loss to IC Catholic Prep. The Green Wave owned a slight edge in overall size and strength, but they simply played a sloppy game, particularly in the red zone where they fumbled away one possession and threw an interception. Second-half drives stalled at the IC 25 and 38-yard lines.
Aware their magic number is 5 wins to qualify for playoff consideration — Rolando projects 41 or 42 playoff points for St. Edward; last year's threshold to qualify as a 5-4 team was 39 points — practices took on a heightened sense of urgency last week as the Wave prepared for Aurora Central Catholic. The senior-laden Chargers had defeated St. Edward 25-7 in 2012, and they entered their homecoming game with a 3-1 record.
"Practice was really tough last week," said four-year varsity running back DaVontae Elam, who has rushed for 851 yards and 10 touchdowns on 123 carries (6.9 avg.). "Coach was on us all week because we should have won the (IC) game. Everyone on the team knew we had thrown away a big opportunity. Practice intensity was high all week. We just got after it because we knew ACC was a must-win game."
The mission for St. Edward was straightforward: beat ACC, then win games in which they will be favored against Chicago Christian (2-3) and Wheaton Academy (2-3). That would give the Wave the 5 wins they need prior to matchups in Weeks 8 and 9 against longtime conference rivals Marian Central (4-1) and St. Francis (3-2).
"We basically told them their heads were underwater going into the ACC game and if they can't beat these next three teams, they're not going to beat one of the last two," Rolando said.
With their playoff hopes clearly on the line in Week 5, the players responded in a big way. The Wave answered ACC's 2 first-quarter touchdowns with a 47-yard scoring run by Koehring and a 4-yarder from Elam. They stormed to the lead with a 24-yard touchdown run from Castoro. A 25-yard scoring strike from junior quarterback Joe Mullen to 6-foot-4 junior Nick Duffy on fourth-and-17 made it 27-14.
Elam's 3-yard run salted away an eventual 35-21 victory, St. Edward's most important triumph since that sun splashed day at Lane Stadium. In all, St. Edward's workhorse running back carried 35 times for 188 yards, which explains why Northern Illinois and South Dakota have expressed strong interest in Elam and why he remains in regular contact with the Wisconsin coaching staff.
It was another big performance by the offensive line of West and Holte, fellow seniors Matt Colasuono and Chris Kelly, junior Jack Tierney and senior tight end Petey DeWindt. They paved the way for 352 rushing yards against ACC, raising St. Edward's season total to 1,505 yards on 195 carries, good for a 7.7-yard average.
"Everyone was ready to go because they knew how important the game was," Holte said.
"The offensive line has been great. Every play they just go hard," Elam said. "They haven't let me down yet and I don't think I've let them down."
Actually, living up to each other's standard is the primary reason St. Edward is finding ways to succeed, according to the head coach.
"They are fearful of letting each other down," Rolando said. "They don't want to have to live with that so they work really well and really hard together."
Such togetherness didn't develop overnight.
"A lot of us came up through the Crusader organization so we've been playing with each other since we were in second grade," Holte said of St. Edward's main feeder program. "We all feel very close together and we don't want to let each other down."
As long as St. Edward does not suffer a homecoming letdown on Friday against Chicago Christian, which dresses approximately 20 players, or a loss in their final home game next week against Wheaton Academy, the Green Wave could be playoff bound for only the fifth time in program history. It would be the school's third playoff appearance in five years.
"There's a tremendous amount of dissatisfaction anytime you don't make (the playoffs)," Rolando said. "You always go in feeling like you have a solid team and this year is no different, but it really doesn't matter if you don't get to play in Week 10 and showcase it.
"All season we've wondered how good a team are we. We always said we don't know. Each week we get a little more definition on that. The IC game was a stumbling block that really chipped away at everyone's confidence, but I think they really got it back this week after beating ACC."
Whether or not Castoro, Holte, West, Koehring, Elam and company will provide this year's freshmen with a similar playoff atmosphere to the one they experienced three years ago remains to be seen.
But thanks to a critical win over ACC, the path to the playoffs looks much sunnier than it did two weeks ago.
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