High school football in DuPage County isn’t quite flipped on its head, but we’re getting close.
The haves gradually are becoming the havenots.
For decades the area relied on a handful of programs to perpetually represent DuPage County deep into the playoffs. Appearances became expected, titles no surprise.
This season things have changed a bit. The perennial powers are fighting just to reach the postseason.
“It’s playoff football every week, and it’s not a first-round game,” said Naperville Central coach Mike Stine. “It’s bigger than that. The goal is to get to five wins and none of us are going to say we’re done until five wins is not possible.”
Naperville Central is among three DuPage Valley Conference teams — Wheaton Warrenville South and Naperville North included — precariously sitting at 3-3 heading into the most crucial of final stretches. Each must win two of its final three games just to reach the playoffs.
What’s on the line? Naperville Central’s missed the playoffs only twice since 1992, Naperville North’s missed once since 1986 and WW South once since 1988.
Winning two out of three would be a feat for any of the three teams. WW South plays Glenbard North (5-1), West Chicago and Wheaton North (6-0), Naperville Central faces Wheaton North, Naperville North and West Chicago, and Naperville North plays West Aurora, the Redhawks and Glenbard North.
Just about every week, nearly every matchup, is a challenge on the level of playoff football.
“We’ve felt like we’ve been in a must-win situation since we played West Chicago two weeks ago,” said Naperville North coach Sean Drendel. “Our kids understand what we’re facing, and they’re ready for the challenge.”
A heavy dose of reality struck every perennial power last week when Downers Grove South — a playoff qualifier in 27 of the last 28 years — fell to 1-5 and out of playoff contention with a 2-point loss to Willowbrook.
Stunning, yes. Perhaps even more stunning is the elimination came at the hands of a Willowbrook team that went 0-9 last season.
Which brings us to the havenots. They’ve suddenly become the haves.
Willowbrook’s turnaround has been simply amazing as the Warriors improved to 5-1 by beating Downers South. Already playoff eligible, a sixth win would seal a berth for a program with one appearance since 2004.
“It’s a product of the work our guys have put in,” said Willowbrook coach Nick Hildreth. “Last year obviously didn’t go as well as we’d like, but we’re headed in the right direction. We’re getting there.”
So is Benet, which was 1-8 last year and has one playoff berth since 2006. The Redwings also improved to 5-1 last week and can seal a postseason spot with a Week 7 win over Nazareth.
With Marist (6-0) and Joliet Catholic (4-2) remaining on the schedule, it’ll be tough garnering many more wins. But with 28 playoff points already, making the playoffs with five wins wouldn’t be a problem for the Redwings.
“We kind of knew we could turn it around this season,” said Benet coach Pat New. “But it’s been fun watching it happen.”
The turnarounds are occurring elsewhere. Downers Grove North, 2-7 last year, is 5-1. Hinsdale South was 5-4 and missed the playoffs last year, but the Hornets already have five wins.
The bottom line is you’re likely to see some unexpected faces in the playoff field, and some familiar faces collecting equipment earlier than usual.
As the havenots of the past surge ahead, the haves will try to not be left behind.
“We’re certainly not abandoning ship,” Stine said of Naperville Central’s final three games. “We believe in what we’re doing, and I’m sure the other teams feel the same way.”
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