Believe it: West Chicago thinking playoffs for first time in two decades
West Chicago wide receiver Tommy Doyle started playing football in kindergarten.
The quiet but well spoken junior fell in love with the sport and despite the constant losing over the years, he never quit.
Upon entering high school, Doyle knew the Wildcats hadn't qualified for the state playoffs since 2002 and rarely won more than a game or two.
"I was excited to play football," Doyle said, "but I kind of knew how it was going to go."
But this year - under the guidance of second-year coach Adam Chavez - West Chicago won four of its first six games and needs just one more victory to become playoff eligible. They fell to 4-3 after a 48-6 loss at Glenbard South (7-0) on Friday.
Glenbard South took a 27-6 halftime lead, getting TDs from Johnny Baldauf (47-yard reception), QB Michael Champagne (3-yard run), Saif Kokoszka (fumble recovery in end zone) and Shaun Aderholt (40-yard punt return).
West Chicago lost Doyle, RB Vince Muci and A'Mari Diaz-Thomas to injury in the first 17 minutes. Robert Lee impressed on the ground, racking up 127 yards on 11 carries in the first half.
"We were down to our third long snapper, our last running back," Chavez said. "That's a really good team, but when you sustain injuries to your top players, it makes it even harder. But the kids battled."
Chavez, a 1996 graduate of Morton High School, previously assisted at Hinsdale Central and Plainfield South. From the first moment last season, the kids realized things would be different.
"When we started, it was a high-paced practice," said senior guard Joseph Flores. "That's something we hadn't done in the past."
Chavez did far more than ramp up the intensity on the field, however, Shortly after he was hired, Chavez took five assistants to Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas, to watch the Division II school run its triple option. Money was tight so the six coaches stayed in one hotel room for two nights.
Chavez also encouraged the kids to hit the weight room by rewarding attendance. Show up 20 times and you got a T-shirt. Forty and you got a hoodie. Sixty and you got a backpack.
The staff took pictures of kids holding their prizes and posted them on social media. Chavez estimated the team went from five who lifted regularly to more than 30.
"Just trying to make it a first-class program like everybody else does," he said. "It's not something we're exclusively doing."
Flores' bench press has increased from 95 pounds as a sophomore to 270 this season.
"Back when I was a sophomore," Flores said, "I saw the seniors bench a lot of weight and was like, 'I can never get up there.'"
The on-field results weren't instantaneous as West Chicago went 1-8 in 2022. But the kids sensed a change when camp started in August and then really got excited after a 57-14 loss to South Elgin.
Wait. Excited after a 43-point defeat? How is that possible?
"Even though we lost that game we saw a lot of good out it," Muci said after practice Wednesday. "We hadn't put points up against South Elgin in years."
The Wildcats piled up 280 yards on the ground that night and were within 28-14 at halftime.
"Their coach told us, 'Nobody's rushed for 280 yards against us in my tenure here. You guys did a heck of a job,' " Chavez said.
Glenbard South coach Ryan Crissey notices a huge difference as well: "All credit to Adam. It is a night-and-day difference. Watching film it's like, 'This is not the same team.' "
West Chicago pulled out a nailbiting 21-14 OT win over Bartlett in Week 2 and took a three-game winning streak into Friday after victories over Fenton, Elgin and Streamwood.
"Our mentality switched," said Diego Contreras, who plays linebacker and tight end. "We saw potential in our team, we saw potential in coach Chavez, and I feel like that all clicked. We believed we could turn this program around. Clearly it's working and we are."
There are so many good individual stories.
Doyle suffers from narcolepsy and falls asleep as soon as he gets home. Flores only started playing football as a freshman when a friend encouraged him to join the team.
Punter Nazrii Krailiuk is a Ukrainian refugee who on games days wears a T-shirt with the Ukrainian flag on his arm that says "No War."
Sophomore quarterback Carter Naranjo is undersized at 5-foot-7, "but he can still sling the ball and run," says Muci.
In addition to Flores, the offensive line includes Ean Arizmendi, Angelo Jimenez, Issac Hernandez and Ali Nasib. The quintet is a huge reason why the Wildcats average 255 rushing yards. Muci leads the way with 741 yards and 11 TDs.
The most gratifying part is the team's success has reenergized the community. The stands are packed and all anyone can talk about is how amazing it would be if the 21-year playoff drought ended.
"I know our community is so hungry," Chavez said. "They love football. But they've been down for so long.
"I just want to give them that feeling where they can walk around with their head held high, with that playoff T-shirt knowing that our program has Restored the Roar."