Sweet Moment Award: First state title since 1974 united West Chicago
This was not your ordinary state championship.
Not for the West Chicago boys soccer players and coaches. Not for the rest of West Chicago Community High School. Not for the West Chicago community.
West Chicago hadn't won a state championship in any sport since the football team did it in 1974. Then the boys soccer team won the Class 3A championship Nov. 9, defeating Morton 2-0 at Hoffman Estates High School.
Like a scene out of "Hoosiers," West Chicago fans embraced their team, and the players embraced the community -- their community -- right back.
For its accomplishment the West Chicago boys soccer team is the Daily Herald's Prep Sports Excellence Sweet Moment Award winner for 2019-2020. And how sweet it was.
"We had all these fans coming out to see us," West Chicago senior Alonso Salinas said. "The whole field was lit up. And just feeling the accomplishment after, how the whole town came together and celebrated us.
"It was way more than winning a state title. It was mostly just to prove that anything is possible. We were of course underdogs. It just gave the town hope."
Those sentiments meant a lot to first-year athletic director Dave Pater.
"It wasn't rehearsed. It was genuine," said Pater, a 2002 West Chicago graduate, the sense of awe and excitement still in his voice.
West Chicago brought a huge crowd for the semifinal and championship games. Coach Jose Villa's wife, Leny, a 2004 West Chicago graduate, found many classmates at Hoffman Estates, the coach said.
"My siblings were there," Villa added. "They were with friends that they graduated with. There was a lot of people there from a lot of different years, and a lot of them said it was like a high school reunion."
The players felt that love from their community all season, but especially during their playoff run.
"That was huge to have that support from the families, from the alumni, from the community. I remember going back to school on Monday -- which was tough to focus for that following week -- and about three-quarters of my (sixth-grade) students were either at the Friday game or the Saturday game. And I was shocked," Villa said.
"That support for West Chicago has always been there," Pater added, "and to have all of us show up for these kids, for this moment, and to have that moment, was undescribable. It really was."
There were sweet moments throughout the season, starting with the season-opening draw against three-time defending state champion Naperville North. That set the tone for the season.
Salinas upped the ante with his promise at September's homecoming pep rally that the team would deliver a state title.
"In the moment of that pep rally, yes, it was something that just came out of my mouth to keep everyone excited," he said. "But even before the season, I had this gut feeling from Day 1 we would win."
Seven months after the championship game, the title and the events surrounding it remain in the hearts of the players, coaches and fans.
"It's special now. It was special then," Villa said. "It will be special in the fall, next year, five, 10 years from now. It was such a big accomplishment that these boys were able to make happen."