It was fate.
After missing the football playoffs last year, the Redhawks made a Class 8A state championship trophy its destiny on Saturday night, nipping Loyola Academy, 13-10.
It was their first state title since 1999. They also became the first team since St. Francis in 2008 to win a state title after failing to make the playoffs the previous season.
“We started this journey a year and five weeks ago,” Redhawks coach Mike Stine said. “We’ve never had a group at Naperville Central that worked harder than these guys. They earned the right to be here.”
Destiny came in many forms, which was no surprise from this group, which has gotten a big play or two from a different player all season long.
Dan Dolheide struck first, recovering an early fumble.
The Redhawks couldn’t convert the turnover into a touchdown, but were able to turn it into a 34-yard field goal from sophomore Connor Assalley in the opening quarter.
Loyola (12-2) had a chance to capitalize on a breakdown in the Naperville Central secondary early in the second quarter as wide receiver Fran O’Malley was wide open, but the pass from Jack Penn (30-for-40, 238 yards) was off target.
A few plays later and Doleheide struck again, making a brilliant one-handed interception in the end zone of deflected pass.
The Redhawks were able to make the Ramblers pay for their mistake once again, as Assalley — who had made 6 of 7 fields goals through 13 games— tied a career-best with a 37-yarder with 3:01 left before halftime.
“We do field goals every single day in practice so I wasn’t too nervous,” Assalley said. “Good snaps and good holds and the linemen all blocked for me which gave me a nice chance of making it.”
The Ramblers finally got on the scoreboard with a safety at 8:55 in the third quarter. The Redhawks caught a bit of a break as the loose ball could have turned into a blocked punt or been fumbled away by punter Ben Andreas.
But the biggest play of the game came with 8:15 left in the fourth quarter and the Naperville Central offense sputtering. At the time, they hadn’t converted a first down in the second half and the Ramblers were getting ready to make it a 6-5 game via a Mike Kurzydlows 27-yard field goal.
Dillon Grooss not only blocked the attempt, but he scooped it up and took it 83 yards into the end zone to make it a 13-2 game.
“I turned the edge and no one really touched me,” Grooss said. “I dove, the ball hit me in the chest, I got a lucky bounce right to me and it was green from there to the end zone.”
Loyola answered with an eight-yard touchdown from Penn to O’Malley and then scored the two-point conversion to make it 13-10 with 5:39 left. The game appeared far from over.
However, Kolbe (8-for-15, 140 yards) connected with Andreas on a 33-yard pass on Naperville Central’s next drive and the Redhawks used runs from primarily Andreas and Kolbe to work the clock down until they could take a victory knee.
“It’s always someone different stepping up,” Kolbe said. “It’s been that way all season. Today, obviously, it was the defense and special teams. That’s how it’s been all season and that’s why we’re here right now.”
With trophy hoisted high above.