Spring success key to Wheaton North's state run
Late last spring, Wheaton North football coach Joe Wardynski started noticing something special building in his program.
The Falcons, led by a strong group of juniors, closed out the abridged, non-playoff season with five victories in six games, including wins over Geneva and Batavia in the final two weeks.
Wardynski said the strong showing in the spring laid the groundwork for a historic showing in the fall.
"I remember us saying last spring after we had success and realizing most of those kids would be back in the fall season, that if we can manage to stay healthy, we would have a chance to win quite a few games," he said. "We were very optimistic."
Senior wide receiver Seth Kortenhoeven, who has caught 59 passes for 884 yards and 6 touchdowns, said the spring season showed the returnees their potential.
"The state title has been in our mind ever since we were freshmen because we knew we had tons of talent, even at the freshmen level," Kortenhoeven said. "But I think we realized we could do it during our spring season, when we were so successful. We were still a young team, so we knew we were going to make a run this year."
After winning three state championship from 1979 to 1986, the Falcons (12-1) are back on the biggest stage, where they will play St. Rita (11-2) in the Class 7A state championship game at 4 p.m. at Northern Illinois University.
"I think this senior group is pretty close knit," Wardynski said. "They've stuck together for four years. If you can limit attrition in your building, you have a chance to be pretty good. We've certainly got a few guys who make more plays than others, but we're a well-rounded team."
The Falcons reached the title game behind a diversified offensive attack and a strong defense, beating Brother Rice 45-27 in the semifinals.
Senior quarterback Mark Forcucci, who has completed 134 of 198 passes for 1,847 yards and 22 touchdowns, said the Falcons have to move the ball and extend drives to keep St. Rita's prolific offense off the field. The Mustangs defeated Prospect 42-20 in the semifinals to enter the state final averaging 37 points a game in the playoffs. Senior running back Kaleb Brown, an Ohio State recruit, and quarterback Tommy Ulatowski headline the Mustangs' high-octane offense.
"I think it's a similar goal as last week," Forcucci said. "They have an explosive offense, so we're going to need to put a lot of points on the board and sustain drives."
Wardynski said the Mustangs, which placed second in Class 7A in 2019, have a balanced attack that will test his experienced and talented defense. The Falcons have given up just 38 points in their four playoff wins, and registered three shutouts this season.
"Offensively, they have the ability to do a lot of different things," he said. "They can just line up the ball and run the ball down your throat. If you're gearing up to stop that, they have speed at wide receiver and the ability to throw at quarterback. Their offensive meetings are probably interesting. The wide receiver coach wants to throw it 30 times a game, while their running back and offensive line coaches want to run it 30 times a game. They have a well-rounded offense with a lot of weapons.
"Brown is a special player, though. They will put him in a position to get the ball a lot. We know he will line up in the backfield, return kicks and punts and they will throw him the ball. We know we will get a steady diet of Kaleb Brown."
Wheaton North senior linebacker Chuck Neidballa said the Mustangs' offense represents one of the toughest tests for the defense this season.
"St. Rita is a physical team that can do a bit of everything, so it's big to keep everything in front of us and prevent big plays," Neidballa said.
Wardynski laid out the ideal game plan to defeat the Mustangs, noting the importance of winning the turnover battle and avoiding three-and-outs on offense.
"I think if we can limit big plays on defense, which we've been good at this year, that's very big," Wardynski said. "They can score on big plays either on long runs or passes. We have to limit those and make them earn things. Plus, not going three-and-out on offense is big.
"We have to get first downs and not change field positions so fast. That's a recipe for disaster. We know we have to control some clock and move the ball and control field position."