Long live the Driscoll Highlanders

  • NOV. 23, 2007- Schwabe lifts the trophy. Driscoll vs Bloomington Central 4A state football championships.

    NOV. 23, 2007- Schwabe lifts the trophy. Driscoll vs Bloomington Central 4A state football championships. Daily Herald file photo

 
 
Published6/10/2009 12:00 AM

Eighth-ranked St. Francis had just beaten unranked Driscoll 21-7 at Robert A. Barth Stadium back in September 1998. The small group of reporters that had pestered Driscoll's rookie head football coach dissipated, leaving one straggler.

"Did I sound OK?" the coach asked the writer. "I'm not really sure what to say."

 

Tim Racki would have plenty of practice polishing his postgame address. Starting with 2001, the first of Driscoll's seven straight seasons as a state football champion, Racki annually had five additional sessions to espouse the Highlanders' mantra of overcoming adversity, trusting each other on and off the field, winning the game's three phases and - capping those seemingly inevitable occasions when Driscoll either willed itself to a title or paved people over - remembering Highlanders who came before.

Rod Molek - like Racki a key figure in Driscoll's athletic prowess now employed elsewhere - said recently, "The success was shared." It was shared by athletes and nonathletes, by coaches and faculty and parents - by all who cheered the Black & Gold since the Addison school made varsity in 1969-70.

As sure as the profound pride felt over Driscoll's 12 state titles and 34 regional championships credited by the Illinois High School Association, profound too among Highlander nation - and those of us who watched its exploits - was the sense of loss that, with its June closing Driscoll's trophies and plaques would be relegated to a display at Addison's Village Hall - with no hope for additional hardware.

Despite the state's proclivity toward football and Driscoll complying with 37 straight playoff victories from 2001-08, the Highlanders were not just about football.

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Driscoll won its first state football title in 1991, but before the flagship really came in the Highlanders had earned a reputation as a baseball school. Foundation-builder and 1992 championship coach Molek mentored Driscoll graduate Jeff Sefcik, and the younger man - occasionally brash, always fair - enhanced a statewide presence that boasted titles in 1994 and 1997.

Sefcik was among a generation of coaches bred through the system, Driscoll graduates who returned, or never left, to continue the good works and create an atmosphere of "family," a mantra so often repeated it threatened being trite, as Highlanders girls basketball coach Steve McCuiston recently noted.

McCuiston came from outside the family, but upon enrolling two children into Driscoll, then joining and later presiding over the Highlanders, he was enveloped and welcomed. As proprietary as Driscoll was in hoarding and honoring its own, it was generous in accepting like-minded converts. (Heck, former boys basketball coach Nick Latorre was an Addison Trail grad, baseball coach Sean Bieterman from York; former football coach John Karpowicz was once - gasp! - a Montini quarterback.)

McCuiston rewarded the trust by leading his girls to the school's final state title this March in Bloomington. That group was a many-sided star, and though it had climbed the mountain there was a feeling of unfinished business borne of graduating just three seniors. One senior, Gigi DiGrazia, had also secured her own state title in golf, representing a school lacking a girls golf team.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Pierre Washington-Steel and Jeremy Wilk earned the Highlanders' final all-state honors in boys track less than two weeks ago - coached by Driscoll grads Deirdre Archer and assistant Fran Sikorski. The boys basketball team developed into a perennial Suburban Catholic Conference power; Highlanders softball and, yes, competitive cheerleading teams dazzled on occasion.

We will revisit Driscoll in our memories, and football will be the thought surfacing first. Why not? The Highlanders - 8-0 in championship games - from 2001-07 nearly doubled the consecutive title-game win streaks of vaunted Joliet Catholic, Mt. Carmel and Providence. Driscoll is among 10 teams nationally (one did it twice) to have won at least seven straight.

If admirers believed Driscoll exacted professional efficiency they were semi-right. Out of the semipro national champion River Grove Cowboys came coach Gene Nudo to assist Rich Marks before accepting the head spot, accompanied by Cowboys-turned-offensive gurus Bob O'Connor and the late Mike Loconsole.

Directing the likes of battering rams Mike "Buzz" Burzawa and Joe Petro and quarterback John Mika - Nudo described them as being "like 40-year-old men," such was their intense football passion and knowledge - Driscoll produced not only a 1991 state champion but also rolled a steady procession of graduates back into the coaching ranks: Burzawa, Petro, Mika, 2008 head coach Brandon New, Pat Ryan, Nick Gebhart, Brian Wojtun, Nick Cicero, Dan Paplaczyk, Mike Freeman and on and on.

And, of course, Racki, like Sefcik a conduit between Driscoll's past and future. Four titles for Racki, three for successor Burzawa - they stood up in each other's weddings - while compiling a record of 92-6.

Driscoll was bolstered by the innovative schemes and techniques of Loconsole, O'Connor, Bill Erzig, Bob Lamantia, John Pullia, Dan Cepek, Kevin Hanrahan and others, a proud cast of committed, unpaid volunteers who arrived from day jobs to implement plans impossible to pin down.

The advance scouting was legendary, a cache of game films and diagrammed tendencies assembled over time by squadrons dispatched throughout the state, several at a time according to an expert sense of bracketology. A game film swap was as simple, and as intimidating, as popping a disc and a tape into the DVR lodged in the back of a station wagon at a TFI Friday parking lot.

Driscoll's 2001 4A title came in a 42-41 double-overtime victory over downstate Mt. Carmel. The next year Driscoll held all-state quarterback Luke Drone to 53 yards passing and won the title 42-0.

"It was like they knew what plays we were running," was a common lament.

Preparation met paranormal when in 2007 Burzawa - dealing simultanously with the recent death of Loconsole and 4A semifinalist Coal City - found a tape while cleaning out the desk the late coach used at 555 N. Lombard Road. A scout tape of Coal City.

Yes, there were superstar players: Freeman, Kentin Lathrope, Victor Arlis, Kevin Palmero, David Schwabe, John Tranchitella, Kyle Jenkins, Phil Pedi, the Franken brothers Shane and Tim. The unsinkable Greg Turner. Driscoll even had a superstar placekicker, national record-setter Rick Albreski. There were enough of them to forget the 3-yard gaps forged by often undersized linemen.

But another genius trait of Driscoll football was that Billy Morris and Joey Calabrese and Ryan Maritote and Jeremy Netzer and Joe Taylor and Ray Lao were just as crucial. Accompanied by bagpipe they stalked shoulder-to-shoulder, hand in hand, a scary phalanx advancing from beneath the south goal post, sometimes a dysfunctional family but a family nonetheless, unified, willful and shouldering a chip as thick as Adam Davis' eye black.

Welcome to the Jungle.

Long live the Highlanders.

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