The capacity of Naperville Central High School’s main gym is about 2,500, and just about every seat was occupied late Saturday night when students, parents and faculty welcomed home the new kings of Illinois Class 8A football.
The team made its appearance to cheers loud enough to temporarily drown out Queen’s “We are the Champions” blaring on the sound system.
“It doesn’t get much better than this,” senior quarterback Jake Kolbe said. “It shows that hard work pays off.”
Naperville Central Coach Mike Stine was in complete agreement with his Illinois State-bound star, praising his leadership.
“This is Jake’s team,” Stine said, stressing the amount of work the entire squad had put into the season.
He pointed to last year’s 4-5 record and season-ending loss in October as the real beginning of the team’s quest to return to the state playoffs.
“That Monday they started,” he said of the vigorous commitment to conditioning led by Kolbe and the rest of the team’s leaders. “No one has ever worked harder than this group.”
Kolbe reminded everyone that players weren’t the only ones with a sweat and toil investment in the team.
“These guys haven’t had a day off since July,” he said of the team’s coaching staff. “They’re the best staff in the state.”
Conditioning was definitely key to the team outlasting Loyola Academy in a game that began as a defensive struggle and remained a physical battle throughout the night.
Naperville Central managed just two first-half field goals by sophomore kicker Connor Assalley, but Loyola’s offense had no answer, with a safety early in the second half after a botched punt attempt by Central its only score.
The game remained 6-2 until Loyola’s field goal attempt at 8:15 of the fourth quarter was blocked by senior Dillon Grooss, who returned it 83 yards for a touchdown, giving the Redhawks what looked like a comfortable lead.
But folding under pressure was not what got Loyola to the championship game, and they finally scored the game’s only offensive touchdown with just under 6 minutes left in the game.
A two-point conversion made the score 13-10, but Naperville Central held on during Loyola’s final two possessions to bring home the state title.
The closeness of the game had Naperville Central fans on edge throughout and made the victory all the sweeter.
“I was nervous before the game even started,” Central Principal Bill Wiesbrook said. “But I feel great.”
Wiesbrook said that while everyone focused on the big second-half plays that determined the outcome of the game, it was sophomore Assalley’s first-half field goals that made the win possible.
“I feel really good,” Assalley said, praising the entire team for its hard work.
He admitted to feeling more pressure than usual, but cited preparation as a key to getting the job done.
“We practice very day,” Assalley said, “and it was a good snap and a good hold.”
With the game played in NIU’s Huskie Stadium in nearby DeKalb, many in attendance drove to the game themselves. But at least six buses ultimately shuttled students to and from the event, indicating a spike in student interest since earlier in the week when only two buses were thought to be needed.
“I am really excited,” freshman Nick Kramer said. “I was nervous ... they (Loyola) were really close.”
His friend Patrick Meier, also a freshman, had his own bout of nerves.
“I didn’t think they were going to hold on,” he said.
The varsity cheerleading squad was ecstatic, and the win was particularly gratifying for the outgoing seniors.
“I feel amazing right now,” senior Alaina Delgado said. “This is a new experience.”
“We all knew they had the talent,” Katie Oberkirch, another senior said.
“I was nervous, but I knew they would come back (with the championship). I’m very proud of them.”