It's not often you can pinpoint a specific day -- a specific time -- when a dream is born.
But it's not often you come across a football team like Naperville Central.
"It started with our 6 a.m. workouts," said senior quarterback Jake Kolbe. "We've been adding it up and it's been a year and five weeks since we started our off-season conditioning program, and it's paid off. This is why you work so hard and why you don't press the snooze button at five in the morning."
The payoff arrives when the Redhawks (10-3) face Loyola (12-1) in the Class 8A championship game at 7 p.m. Saturday at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. Naperville Central makes its fourth appearance in the final in search of a second title.
The motivation for a fierce team work ethic stems from a stinging end to last season when the Redhawks lost three of their last four games to finish 4-5 and miss the playoffs. In the previous 29 years it's only the sixth time they've missed the postseason.
With their pride hammered a clear mission arose.
"We had to make a statement this year," said Redhawks linebacker Jack Wooldridge, the DuPage Valley Conference's defensive player of the year. "Four-and-five is unacceptable. This year we came out to be remembered."
That's not to say this season's been a cake walk. Naperville Central lost standout defensive lineman Cole Wooldridge for the season with a Week 2 knee injury, and it lost offensive lineman Alex Peterson for a good chunk of the year. Add to that a season-ending injury to running back Tyler Joyce and the Redhawks spent several weeks without three of their senior leaders.
Naperville Central still managed to start the season by winning five straight games but then lost three straight to Wheaton Warrenville South, Glenbard North and Wheaton North before recovering with a victory over Naperville North in the regular-season finale.
With a second wind the Redhawks' sense of urgency kicked in just in time for the program's return to the playoffs.
"You've got to keep on fighting, and that's what we kept doing," defensive lineman Nate Teske said. "Three down, that's not easy for any team to come back from. But that (Naperville) North game, that was big for us. Our bond was solid and that's what kept driving us."
Disappointing as last season was, coach Mike Stine is quick to bring perspective to the playoff absence. All five losses came to playoff teams, four advancing to the state quarterfinals. This year's road was even tougher with six regular-season opponents reaching the postseason before the Redhawks beat two higher-seeded teams en route to Saturday's title game.
In Stine's mind last year there were non-playoff teams and then there was Naperville Central.
"We were 4-5, but I truly thought if we could get one more win we could make a run and play with anybody," Stine said. "We did learn from that last year, and that was a motivation for these seniors. This is a special group."
While football teams in the past have made the leap from not making the playoffs one year to reaching a title game the next, the list is small.
Fittingly, this Naperville Central group is in select company.
"Not making the playoffs doesn't fly at Naperville Central," Kolbe said. "This is a great program and we felt like we let the program down last year. We knew we had to put in the work to get to the state championship game, and here we are."
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