Naperville Central ready to wrap up unusual regular season
Naperville Central knew it'd be tackling a difficult football schedule this season.
But did the Redhawks expect this?
After facing a little bit of everything through eight weeks -- and still managing to wrap up a playoff berth and a second straight outright DuPage Valley Conference title with last week's victory over Waubonsie Valley -- Naperville Central (6-2) closes the regular season with an interesting nonconference game at Cary-Grove, the unbeaten top-ranked team in Class 6A.
"We talked a lot about our schedule with the kids, even in the spring when we knew what we'd be facing," said Redhawks coach Mike Stine. "We've been excited about every game we've had this year."
Assuming Neuqua Valley and Waubonsie Valley are both safely in the playoff field, Cary-Grove represents the fifth playoff team Naperville Central played in the regular season. It started with consecutive losses to Hinsdale Central (6-2) and defending Class 8A champion Lincoln-Way East (8-0), the top-ranked team in 8A.
Since those losses the Redhawks rattled off six straight wins, including one in Kentucky against a defending state champion. They traveled twice to Frankfort to play Lincoln-Way East and needed two days to beat Neuqua Valley because of weather postponements.
Naperville Central also had to play cross-town rival Naperville North twice in three weeks.
With all they've endured so far, a trip to Cary-Grove is just another step in a process the Redhawks hope leads to a deep playoff run.
"Every week has been a different kind of challenge for us," Stine said. "We're learned a lot about ourselves and grew from it."
Close and closer:
Downers Grove North (4-4, 2-3 West Suburban Silver) kept its playoff hopes alive with back-to-back victories over Lyons Twp. and Downers Grove South.
This year's cross-town game was especially emotional for first-year Trojans coach Joe Horeni, a 2002 graduate of Downers Grove South who was a starting offensive lineman on the Mustangs' 2001 Class 8A championship team.
"Playing and getting the win against DGS was awesome," Horeni said. "The cross-town game always carries a lot of intensity. I am most proud of our kids. They've worked incredibly hard and have bought in."
The Trojans held off the Mustangs 10-0 with an awesome defensive effort and another great two-way performance by junior quarterback and safety Drew Cassens, who rushed for over 100 yards and snared an interception on defense.
Downers North becomes playoff eligible with a Friday victory at York (3-5, 2-3). It'll be another familiar challenge for Horeni, who was an assistant coach at St. Francis when York coach Mike Fitzgerald was at the helm for the Spartans.
Fitzgerald and Horeni helped St. Francis advance to the Class 6A semifinals in 2014, which should make for an interesting reunion this weekend in Elmhurst.
"Playing against Mike is going to be a lot of fun," Horeni said. "We had a great team the year we coached together at St. Francis, and it's fun to be on opposite sides of the field, both as head coaches."
On the surface it looks like everything's gone smoothly for Willowbrook this season.
Hard to think otherwise when you look at the Warriors' unbeaten record and second straight West Suburban Gold championship. A victory over Downers Grove South this weekend gives the program its first 9-0 regular season since 1975.
But even the last couple games haven't exactly been textbook evenings for the Warriors, even though they beat Morton and Proviso East by a combined margin of 82-7.
Against Morton, Willowbrook chose to move up the game's start time to 5 p.m. to avoid the incoming storms that struck on Oct. 5. Then last week in Maywood the power went out twice in the stadium.
The Warriors had no trouble keeping their focus through the distractions -- a key indicator of a winning team.
"It's a grind for everyone, and it's all about how you respond to things like that," said Warriors coach Nick Hildreth. "I thought our guys handled it all real well."
Getting No. 1:
An opening eight-minute drive, a pair of big catches by Mike Wagner and the varsity debut of "El Toro" helped West Chicago earn its first win of the season, 20-6 over Streamwood last Friday.
"It was huge for me, but I'm more worried about how the kids are," said first-year coach Jack Rustman. "They gave me the game ball at the end, which was cool."
The Wildcats began the game with a time-consuming drive that kept Streamwood's offense on the sideline. West Chicago didn't score on it but tallied 3 second-quarter touchdowns as Luke Krogh found Wagner for 21- and 8-yard passes and Alphonso Diaz-Thomas on an 8-yard pass.
"Mike Wagner had his best game, he made two Division I-style catches, jumping backward while double-covered," Rustman said. "And Luke Krogh made some amazing throws to make that happen, too."
Along with such usual suspects defensively as Marco Calderon, Matt Gilbert, Adam Hey, Alex Resindez and Miguel Rodriguez, Rustman said Rafael Guerrero -- nicknamed "El Toro" -- "came out of the woodwork and tore it up."
A 6-foot, 250-pound sophomore defensive tackle, Guerrero came out late for football and was a scout team player. Making his first varsity snaps against Streamwood, Guerrero recorded 3 solo tackles and 3 assists.
After East Aurora blindsided the Wildcats in Week 7, Rustman praised their character by practicing hard during the week. It paid off.
"Oh man, I've never seen the kids happier. It was like a big relief for a lot of them," he said.
No let up:
With one more chance to get its first win Friday at Geneva, Glenbard North is fiercely committed to doing just that.
"I'm not pondering next year whatsoever," Panthers coach Ryan Wilkens said. "It wouldn't do this team any justice."
Glenbard North even unfurled a Wildcat-style look offensively last week against Wheaton Warrenville South with Angelo Cusumano earning some of his 79 rushing yards taking direct snaps. Glenbard North has run a pro-style offense seemingly forever but has tinkered with a shotgun-spread set.
"Adjustments had to be made and so they were," Wilkens said.
Despite taking a 24-13 loss to the Tigers, Glenbard North outgained WW South 329 yards to 157 by Panthers' stats, including Jordan McQuarter's 98 yards rushing, Kobie Jamison's 58 yards receiving and Jaheim Edmonds' 49 yards receiving. Cusumano scored on the ground and on a Mike Vazquez pass, and also picked off a pass.
Wilkens is focused on the present, but Glenbard North has a promising future. Each of the players listed above are juniors, as are fellow skill players Cordell Smiley, Rory Hills, Kelvin Hicks and linemen Mayo Bola, Justyn Orozco, John Cassidy and Jahquell Reese, among others.
"We do have quite a bit coming back," Wilkens said. "That's why at this point it's important for the kids to keep on focusing on getting better and, as cliché as it is, executing every play to its fullest."
Back in black and blue and white:
After consecutive 1-8 seasons St. Francis (6-2, 3-2 Metro Suburban Blue) is guaranteed its best record and first playoff appearance since the Spartans went 10-3 and reached the 2014 Class 6A semifinals.
"It's just awesome, it's a great experience right now for this school, these kids," said second-year Spartans coach Bob McMillen. "These seniors have never been in the playoffs."
St. Francis is in a sweet spot.
It's got experienced seniors such as linemen Jesse Gonzalez and Dan Skold, versatile skill player Joe Lang, running back Henry Plamondon, linebacker Marcus Ingold and defensive backs Clay Gorski, Sean Marren and Noah Salinas.
The Spartans also are built for the future. Quarterbacks Tommy Rittenhouse and Mike Baffa, receivers Ryan French, Jake Tangorra and Tyler Bishop, running back Jason Klank, linebackers Enzo Rendina and Michael Bumpus and linemen Connor Schmidt, Joey Mayor, Ryan Holleman, John Amabile and Luke Meyer are among contributors coming back.
"We've gotten good play out of some younger players this year, and I think that's why we're having the success that we are," McMillen said.
He said they trust their coaching, study film and practice hard. Another plus is it's nearly a two-platoon squad.
"That's one thing that we've tried to develop because we know that it's a long season," McMillen said.
It's about to get longer.
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