The calendar said that the 2011 state football playoffs began Friday night.
For Naperville Central, the 2011 playoffs began on Oct. 22, 2010, the day the Redhawks lost their final game to finish 4-5 and feel the raw disappointment of the program's first playoff-less season since 2002.
Disappointment can be a great motivator, however, and after watching his ninth-seeded squad dismantle No. 8 Minooka 40-13 in their Class 8A opener, Naperville Central coach Mike Stine feels he has a team this year that can still don the helmets and pads on Thanksgiving weekend.
"Our seniors really dedicated themselves to this year after missing the playoffs last year and worked so hard to get here," Stine said. "I feel that we can make a run at the state title."
It will be hard to stop the Redhawks (7-3) if they continue to turn in strong performances in all three phases of the game like they did at Minooka (6-4). Defensive lineman Zach Borta and Rob Girgis, and linebackers Luke Roth and John Dulleck made life miserable for the Indians' six-deep stable of runners, especially quarterback Joey Carnagio and running back Kalvin Hill, who managed a combined 67 yards on 18 carries against Naperville Central's first-team defense.
The unit definitely had an admirer in Minooka coach Bert Kooi.
"They did a real good job handling us up front," he said. "Kalvin never got going. There didn't seem to be any of the seams we've been able to create for him against other teams."
Stine expected Minooka to stack the line of scrimmage against his own squad's powerful running attack, so he came out throwing. The Redhawks needed just 60 seconds and four plays to go 80 yards and notch the game's first score. Ian Lewandowski hit Chris Prebil for a 31-yard gain on the first snap and on the fourth he found John Dicianni for a 33-yard score. The lead climbed to 13-0 on Naperville Central's third possession when Matt Randolph ran 20 yards to paydirt to cap a 73-yard drive.
Naperville Central's only real hiccup on defense came on the next play when Carnagio hit a streaking Luke Stovall for an 82-yard score to make it 13-6. Naperville Central then firmly took control thanks to a bit of trickery. Facing fourth-and-8 from the Minooka 41, Stine signaled for a fake punt and it was executed perfectly with a wide-open Randolph hauling in Lewandowski's pass and streaking untouched down the sideline and into the end zone.
"We hadn't done it all year and had been working on it," Stine said. "We had the ball at midfield and our defense had been pretty solid to that point, plus we feel confident with the ball in Ian's hands and him getting it to Matt."
Naperville Central's special teams also accounted for its next two scores as Tyler Gillen drilled 40- and 34-yard field goals to bump the advantage to 26-6 midway through the third quarter. Randolph added a spectacular 78-yard TD run before Lewandowski burst 20 yards up the middle on the first play of the fourth quarter to complete Naperville Central's scoring. Minooka notched a consolation score courtesy of Nate McGuire's 4-yard sweep with four minutes to play.
The Redhawks' playoff road takes them home next weekend where they will host 16th-seeded Belleville East, a 14-7 upset winner over top-seeded Waubonsie Valley.