CARPENTERSVILLE – Fabian Gutierrez has had a difficult time concentrating on his classwork this week at Dundee-Crown.
You would, too, if you were part of the school’s first playoff football team since 1994.
“I’m not behind,” Gutierrez said with a sheepish grin Thursday before heading to practice as a senior defensive back for the Chargers. “I just wouldn’t say I’ve been doing the best work lately. It’s hard. It’s been a big week.”
Hundreds of area football players surely understand.
The first round of the Illinois High School Association football playoffs kicks off Friday and Saturday, and 10 teams from across the region have qualified for the postseason. Each team’s mission is simple – survive and advance – as championship weekend looms at the end of November at DeKalb’s Huskie Stadium.
Every playoff team offers a great story, but D-C’s might be the most compelling.
Not so long ago, the Chargers football program was in shambles. Forget about finishing the season with a winning record. D-C was lucky if it won a single game.
Between 2006 and 2011, the Chargers won six games and lost 39.
This season, they won six games and lost three. And they’re still playing.
All of a sudden, those 5:30 a.m. alarm buzzers for 6:10 a.m. weightlifting sessions have proven to be completely worthwhile. Students who were not alive in 1994 have buoyed a program that has not been alive in the playoffs since that year.
“It’s really good to see all of our hard work finally start paying off,” said Sam Franckowiak, a senior strong safety and team captain. “We’ve been working as a team in the offseason, during the summer, waking up early and all that stuff.
“It’s nice to see what we’ve worked for all come together.”
It has come together under head coach Vito Andriola, a demanding leader who has changed the culture of D-C football since his arrival three seasons ago. Andriola previously had served as a head coach at Grayslake and an assistant coach at Glenbard South, and he took a hefty pay cut for the chance to lead D-C.
Building a winning team is hard work, and change proved to be difficult.
During Andriola’s first season at D-C, 28 players quit the team. It would have been 27, but another player quit on the eve of the final game of the season.
The transition was as rocky for some parents as it was for some players.
“I had a parent yell at me, ‘You practice like you’re trying to win the state championship!’ ” Andriola said, shaking his head in exasperation. “Think of that. That’s like a parent going, ‘You’re teaching my kid like you want him to be smart!’ ”
Many steps remain if D-C is to transform fully from laughingstock to powerhouse, but the Chargers’ arrow is pointed up. They earned the No. 13 seed in Class 8A (enrollments 2,398 and up), and they will visit No. 4 seed Oak Park-River Forest at 7:30 p.m. Friday for the right to play the winner of Maine South versus Niles West.
A steady rainfall Thursday forced the Chargers to practice inside the gymnasium, where excited voices bounced off the walls before players lined up to stretch. When Andriola barked out commands, the voices quickly ceased.
“Everything’s going to be the same – only inside.”
“We’ve got a job to do. I want this to be a great, focused practice.”
“Playing football in November is a great thing. And that’s what we’re doing.”
Until now, D-C never has played a game in November.
It’s a feel-good story, even if Andriola cringes at the term. Tell him about the program’s remarkable progress, and he points out the significant work that remains.
“I’m not a feel-good story guy,” said Andriola, who lives in nearby West Dundee. “I didn’t come here to feel good. I didn’t come here to be 6-3. I came here to help go for a state championship and compete at the highest level.”
Could that day ever arrive? At D-C, of all places?
“It depends,” Andriola said, “on how many guys buy into it, and how many people decide they want to do it. Because you’ve got to work. You’ve got to work.”
This group works.
And no matter what happens Friday, the Chargers’ seniors will be known as the class that helped to revive a dormant program.
“We don’t want our season to end,” Gutierrez said. “We don’t want it to be a good year but then get blown off in the playoffs. We want to keep it going.”