Bringing the community together: North Central College feted back home after winning national title
Fresh from its national title win, the North Central College football team was greeted home to Naperville by the notes of the song "Eye of the Tiger" and a cheering crowd of students, family, faculty and alumni, many wearing cardinal red and white.
North Central College beat University of Wisconsin-Whitewater 41-14 on Friday at the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl in Texas, earning the school's first NCAA Division III championship.
The players said they were thrilled at the reception Saturday afternoon.
"It's unbelievable how one football team can bring one community together," said senior Colton Bauknecht, of Pontiac. "We're hoping that we change the culture around here and this is the new standard."
Sophomore Michael Hasenstab of Champaign was greeted by his grandparents Ralph and Nancy Brownfield of Elk Grove Village. His parents were driving back from Texas after watching the team win.
"It's exciting to see all the fan support," Hasenstab said. "It's a goal we've been working toward for a long time, so it's exciting to finally achieve that goal."
Senior Hannah Vitkus, a basketball player, said she has a lot of friends on the football team. "It was great to see them win. I am proud of them."
North Central alumnus Michael Norwood of Chicago, who played football there until the 2002-03 season, came wearing his letterman jacket. He played under coach John Thorne, the father of current coach Jeff Thorne.
"Social media was blowing up last night," Norwood said. "I was on my Facebook, Instagram, Twitter ... all the alumni started reuniting all over again. I talked to people I haven't talked to in 15 years."
Lauren Persin, a 2008 graduate of North Central, came with her husband, Scott, and their children Jackson, 12, and Ellie, 6. The family lives about a block from the college.
"It was pretty exciting," Scott Persin said. "All our family watched the game last night. Even family in Atlanta was watching."
Faculty member Amy Buxbaum of Naperville said she's not a football fan but she, too, watched the game.
"It feels awesome. This is a once-in-a-lifetime ...," she said, then corrected herself. "Well, let's hope it's a first-in-a-lifetime event for our school. We are really proud of the team and the athletic department."
Junior team member Nathan Gray of Naperville was on crutches, because he tore his ACL and meniscus about five weeks ago. He watched the game from the press box alongside the coaches, but not being able to play didn't diminish his joy one bit, he said.
"What we did was amazing," Gray said with a beaming smile. "I just feel so happy."