DeKALB – The Lena-Winslow football team won its second Class 1A state title Friday, defeating Downs Tri-Valley, 28-21, in the state finals. The Panthers gave the Daily Chronicle all-access from their arrival Thursday in DeKalb on through their victory celebration in the locker room Friday afternoon.
3 p.m. Thursday, DeKalb High School Adam Wright saunters out of the DeKalb locker room, fully dressed for Lena-Winslow’s walk-through practice leading up to the next day’s state championship. The senior kicker wears his practice jersey, pads, cleats and completes it with blue jeans.
“When I was a freshman it got colder towards the end of the season and everybody was putting shorts on, basketball shorts,” Wright said. “I was a freshman so I didn’t do that much but kick, so I thought, ‘I’m just going to keep my pants on,’ and I got tons of crap for that for a couple days.”
As the weather grew colder, Wright’s teammates soon followed and after the Panthers won the state title in 2010, wearing blue jeans for the final gameday practice became a playoff tradition.
With the state championships in DeKalb instead of Champaign, Lena-Winslow, situated just northwest of Freeport, had less than half the travel time compared to three years ago.
Still, it meant another Thanksgiving spent on the road for the Panthers, who stayed Thursday in Rochelle. Their choice Turkey Day dinner spot? The Iron Skillet restaurant at a truck stop across the street.
“The kids were complaining about the food,” assistant coach Kyle Benson said. “But I thought it was fine.”
6:30 a.m. Friday, Rochelle Holiday Inn Express
A group of assistant coaches are gathered in the lobby, relaxing in chairs and talking about anything but football. The 10 a.m. kickoff meant an early curfew for players and coaches, but it doesn’t sound like many got their full amount of sleep.
Senior Matt Greene is the first player ready downstairs before the 7 a.m. deadline, dressed in a turquoise button down with black slacks, a salmon-colored tie and white Nikes.
“Can’t win the state championship looking like crap,” Greene said.
Paul Cheeseman pulls up the bus to the Holiday Inn Express entrance way and the players eventually file on. Cheeseman was Lena-Winslow’s bus driver for the Panthers’ last state title, but this week has been a little less stressful than 2010. A couple days before their last state roadtrip, Cheeseman’s house burned down in an electrical fire. He lost everything.
No matter, Cheeseman was in good spirits Friday morning. With the players mostly engaged with their own music in the back half of the bus, Cheeseman quickly retells the story of when he gave model Cindy Crawford a ride to her mother’s home in DeKalb.
He points out the house as the bus heads east on Lincoln Highway towards Huskie Stadium.
“I still can’t believe that,” head coach Ric Arand said.
8 a.m., Northern Illinois Chessick Center
Almost every Panther player gets wide-eyed as they walk from NIU’s Brigham Field into the Yordon Center and toward the Chessick Practice Center, looking through the windows at the new turf they would warm up on 45 minutes later.
One player asks “Why can’t we play in here?”
The new indoor turf is one of the main reasons NIU secured the bid for the state finals in odd-numbered years through 2021. The Lena-Winslow coaching staff unanimously agrees that it dwarfs the facilities down in Champaign.
After taking in the new brand-new facility, the players go back to the locker room to dress and music starts blasting. “Thunderstruck” starts the pump-up playlist that will eventually include Lupe Fiasco and Trapt among others.
Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” goes on as many of the players get tape treatment from the coaching staff and break in handwarmers.
“Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted, one moment,” the song states. “Would you capture it or just let it slip?”
9:15 a.m., NIU locker room
The locker room falls silent as Arand prepares his final pre-game speech.
After a 6-3 regular season, Lena-Winslow has reeled off four consecutive playoff wins. Arand dives into the history books and talks about the 2003 Galena team that also had three regular-season losses before winning a state title.
Coaches stress stopping Caleb Wilson, the fullback in Downs Tri-Valley’s run-oriented offense. Arand, who would later be right on the money, predicts the opponent will throw it twice, adding “don’t get caught.”
All season Arand has seen a consistent effort from this group, which he said compares favorably to the 2010 team.
“If what we get from you is better than what [Downs Tri-Valley] gets from them then we’re going to hoist a [big] trophy,” Arand said. “But we have a lot of work to do before now and then.”
Senior quarterback Ben Moest, one of Lena-Winslow’s captains and the undisputed leader, gathers the players for one last talk before going into final warm-ups. He was in Champaign as a freshman for the title in 2010, but watched mainly as a bystander after running the scout-team offense all year. Now, he was the focal point of the huddle.
“I love all you guys. It’s been such a great season, I’m going to miss it when it’s over,” Moest said. “The only way it’s going to be even better is we go out state champions. You give everything you’ve got today, we’ll forever have that mark.”
10 a.m., Huskie Stadium west sideline
The first play from scrimmage is a microcosm of the entire first half. Lena-Winslow makes contact with a running back in the backfield only to see him spin out of two tackles for a gain of six yards.
But turnovers bail the Panthers out on two occasions as Luke Schubert and Gus Werhane each force fumbles that are scooped up by Tyler Oakley and returned for touchdowns in the first quarter, the first two defensive scores his career.
“Not in my wildest dreams did I think that [would happen],” Oakley said. “Bread and butter has been our offense this year, but ever since we got [Hank Holm] back, defense started stepping it up week in week out.”
The lead doesn’t last for long as Wilson continued to shed would-be tacklers and make big plays, helping the Vikings to a 21-14 halftime lead.
“No arm tackling,” Arand yells from the sideline.
11:05 a.m., home locker room
Barely a minute into the NIU locker room and Werhane’s voice can be heard over everybody else.
Werhane didn’t grow up with the rest of the senior class. The senior linebacker was originally from Baraboo, Wis., before moving to Illinois before his sophomore year. He wears his passion and emotion on his sleeve, but at halftime he remains optimistic.
“Settle down. Calm down,” Werhane tells his teammates. “We’re playing fine, we’re within a touchdown. This is our game.”
Some of the team sits with their heads down, undoubtedly frustrated by the lack of offensive production in the first half. Benson echoes Werhane’s sentiment, telling the team they played their worst half of football in eight week, are only down seven points and getting the ball after half.
The coaching staff makes a couple key adjustments, including a change in their defensive formation. Once again, the same keys are restated.
“Stop fullback,” Arand said. “Stop fullback right now.”
11:25 a.m., Huskie Stadium west sideline
Moest had a first half to forget, fumbling the team’s first offensive snap and shanking a couple punts. But he leads the Panthers on their best offensive series of the day, driving 74 yards on 14 plays. He hits Schubert on an out route for a 10-yard pass on 4th-and-7 and scored on a run from a yard out three plays later.
“Stuff like that has been happening to the team all year,” Moest said. “We make mistakes all year and we’ve just been able to persevere through those and come back and win. Have a never-say-die attitude and keep the confidence up.”
A Downs Tri-Valley fumble on its first play quickly turns into seven points for Lena-Winslow on an Oakley rushing touchdown. The defense clamps down and gets a couple key fourth-down stops to secure a comeback win.
As Moest takes the final knee, Anthony Martinez and Alan Myelle grab the Gatorade jug and quickly drench the back of Arand, who dons a fresh Lena-Winslow cap with “2013 State Champs” scribbled in sharpie before the obligatory TV interview.
After walking through the handshake line, Holm and Oakley, who have played together since middle school, find each other and embrace in a hug.
“It’s been our dreams since seventh grade. To finally reach that goal there’s no better feeling in the world,” Holm said. “We were saying how much we love each other and how it was the best feeling in our lives.”
12:30 p.m., Yordon Center
Moest, Holm, Werhane and Oakley sit with Arand at the postgame news conference with a combined look of exhaustion and elation. They look at each other still semi-stunned at what has transpired over the last few hours, the goal finally attained of bookending the freshman year championship with another one in their senior campaign.
Moest carried the championship trophy from the awards stage in the north end zone to the locker room. Somewhere along the way, one of the three gold figurines on the trophy was broken off. The coaches assure that glue can fix it.
Even with a team trophy and individual medals in hand, another prize makes the Panthers hurry to get on the bus home: pizza from Pizza Villa.
Arand said he didn’t originally think this team was overly talented, but had an unmatched work ethic. Before the game, the Class 1A all-state team was announced. Two Downs Tri-Valley players were named, none from Lena-Winslow.
“I knew they were fighters,” Arand said. “They fought, they battled, but for a long time at the beginning of the year we weren’t very good and we knew that. At one point we were 4-3 and we rattled off seven straight.”
The drive back to Lena will be shorter than 2010 – only 1 hour, 20 minutes – but just as sweet for a team that wasn’t predicted by many to be there.
“I’m going to have a beer, I know that much,” Arand said. “There’s a couple bar-restaurants in Lena that are fan favorites so we’ll hit those and, to be honest with you, I’ll probably go home and enjoy it with my family.”