DeKALB -- Since August, Naperville Central football coach Mike Stine consistently turned to a one-word description of his team.
Epitomized Saturday night, truer words never have been spoken.
Spurred by pivotal special teams plays, the Redhawks claimed the Class 8A championship with a 13-10 victory over Loyola at Northern Illinois University.
All 13 points for Naperville Central (11-3) came on special teams, capped by a stunning blocked field goal and 83-yard return for a touchdown by Dillon Grooss. Instead of Loyola (12-2) pulling within 6-5 on a 27-yard field goal with eight minutes left in the game, Grooss turned in the play of the game and spun it firmly into the hands of Naperville Central at 13-2.
"I turned the edge and I got maybe one hand on me, no one really touched me," Grooss said of the play. "I dove, the ball hit me in the chest, I got a lucky bounce right to me and it was green from there to the end zone."
Sounds simple enough, but nothing came easy against the Ramblers.
Both defenses dominated, but the Redhawks managed to eke out a 6-0 halftime lead on field goals of 34 and 37 yards by sophomore kicker Connor Assalley. Both scores came off red-zone turnovers by Loyola, the first a Dan Dolehide fumble recovery at the Redhawks' 14-yard line and the second a Dolehide interception in the end zone.
Loyola narrowed the gap to 6-2 early in the third quarter when an errant Naperville Central punt snap rolled through the end zone.
"Keys in the game," said Loyola coach John Holecek, "No giving up big plays, we did that. Turnovers, we did plenty of those. And special teams. We lost all three phases of that. You can't win a tight game like that."
Like they've done all through the playoffs, the Redhawks won the turnover battle. Dolehide's pick was the team's ninth in the last three games.
"It's huge," Dolehide said. "Every game we've won we've had more turnovers, and the three games we lost we had none."
Loyola finally sustained a drive without a critical mistake following Grooss' block, scoop and score. Eleven plays, 75 yards and 2 minutes, 36 seconds of clock time led to Jack Penn's 8-yard touchdown pass to Fran O'Malley. Penn's 2-point conversion run pulled the Ramblers within 13-10 with 5:39 left.
Naperville Central then took control at its 21-yard line with 5:33 left and strung together four first downs, including a fourth-and-1 conversion by quarterback Jake Kolbe. A 33-yard pass to Ben Andreas, 36 rushing yards by Andreas, 17 by Kolbe and a 4-yard run by Kevin Clifford helped drain the clock to zeros.
A team that didn't make the playoffs last year. A team that lost three straight games toward the end of the regular season and finished fourth in the DuPage Valley Conference. A team that had to beat No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in the playoffs somehow found a way.
Seventh-seeded Naperville Central found a way to win the second state title in program history, its first since 1999.
"It's been our goal the whole year," said Kolbe, who threw for 140 yards and rushed for 28. "We never lost hope and just kept fighting every day. We've been working so hard for this and we knew we just had to get to the playoffs."
Naperville Central just missed the playoffs last season after finishing with a 4-5 record. From the moment the disappointment kicked in, the Redhawks went on a redemption mission.
Saturday night, that mission was accomplished.
"We've never had a group at Naperville Central work harder than these guys," said Stine, an assistant coach on the 1999 team. "They earned the right to be here. They're a tight-knit group, I love these guys to death. It just shows that hard work sometimes does pay off."
Follow Kevin on Twitter @kevin_schmit