Cary-Grove hoping this trip to Champaign bears championship fruit
It is unlikely anyone from Cary or Fox River Grove needs directions to Memorial Stadium in Champaign at this point.
Everybody who supports Cary-Grove football knows the route.
The Trojans (13-0) make their fifth state title-game appearance in 15 years on Saturday at 1 p.m. The top seed in the northern bracket of Class 6A will face Crete-Monee (10-3), which fought its way through the southern bracket as a No. 11 seed.
It is a rematch of the 2012 Class 6A state championship, which Crete-Monee won 33-26.
Many of the players on this Cary-Grove roster were in the stands for the 2012 title game.
And the 2014 title-game loss to Providence.
And the 2009 title-game victory over Providence.
Senior split end Quinn Priester remembers going to the 2009 game with running back/safety Danny Daigle and offensive lineman Harry Heinisch, among others, soon after their youth football team won the bantamweight Super Bowl for 7- and 8-year-olds.
"That's when the seed was kind of planted that, hey, we want to do this one day," Priester said. "Now, that we are given the opportunity, I think we've just got to take advantage of it."
The 2018 Trojans attack with a more versatile offense than their championship-game predecessors. While run-oriented Cary-Grove still operates the same triple option attack it has used for 15 years, this version passes the ball better. The offense has thrown for 1,364 yards and 18 touchdowns.
By comparison, the 2014 Trojans entered the title game with 811 passing yards and 12 touchdowns.
The 2012 team entered with 453 passing yards and 6 touchdowns.
The 2009 championship team entered with 748 passing yards and 15 touchdowns.
Cary-Grove hasn't undergone a philosophical change. The Trojans throw more often this year because they have the personnel to pull it off.
"That's really why we did pass more this year, because the kids are able to do it," Cary-Grove coach Brad Seaburg said.
Quarterback Ben McDonald is the most accurate passer to ever come through the school, and he is protected by a talented offensive line, led by two-time all-state pick Addison West. McDonald, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound senior, has completed 71.4 percent of his passes (85 of 119).
Senior receivers Daigle and Priester are the other part of the equation. They allow the offense to stretch the field vertically. Daigle has 43 catches for 618 yards and 8 touchdowns and has rushed for 673 yards and 7 scores. Priester has 37 receptions for 667 yards and 10 touchdowns.
"Quinn is just a huge weapon that I love to throw to, a big target," said McDonald, who has rushed for 1,380 yards and 24 touchdowns. "Danny runs great routes, he's speedy and he gets separation from defenders. It makes my job easy when you have guys like that."
First-year coordinator Matt Furlong's defense is led by senior end Jacob DiMatteo (36 tackles, 8 sacks), junior linebacker Jake Johnson (42.5 tackles, 5 sacks) and Daigle (team-high 59.5 tackles, 5 interceptions).
What DiMatteo (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) lacks in size he makes up for with technique and a nonstop motor, his coach said.
Johnson missed half his freshman season and his entire sophomore season with a back injury, but you'd never know it. He hunts down ball carriers like it's payday and they owe him cash.
Daigle hits so hard he has twice injured his own shoulder. When he did it last year against Huntley, he wanted to go back in the game after trainers popped the shoulder back in place but wasn't allowed, Seaburg said.
A Cary-Grove defense that starts four juniors and two sophomores limits opponents to 16 points per game.
"We're a bunch of young guys, really, who don't have that much playing experience and we've just really matured throughout the season as it's moved on," DiMatteo said. "We just have to continue to dominate the line up front and get 11 hats to the ball and we'll be just fine."
Memorial Stadium hasn't been overly kind to the Trojans through the years. They own a 1-3 record in title games, 0-2 since Seaburg took over in 2011.
These players hope to make their visit to Champaign more fruitful.
"We've all been dreaming about this since the first time we put on a helmet," Daigle said. "This is what we've all been working for throughout our four years in high school and I just think it's so exciting. It's a great opportunity for all of us just getting to this point. Now, we just need to finish the job."