Addressing his team after the Class 7A semifinal Saturday, Chad Hetlet was nearly overcome with emotion.
The Glenbard West sixth-year head coach had every reason to be proud of his guys.
Gaining a measure of revenge after Lake Zurich spoiled the Hilltoppers’ undefeated campaign a year ago, Glenbard West turned the tables on the Bears in a 19-13 victory that was played at Glenbard South High School.
In reaching their second state title game in the past four years, the team added another special accomplishment to what has already been a memorable campaign. But don’t think for a second that the Hilltoppers are satisfied, especially after the program had to settle for the runner-up trophy in 2009.
“It means everything,” Hetlet said. “You commit so much time and everything to it. You think you’ve got a team that has a shot but it’s all about the right mix of things happening. It means a lot but we don’t want to go down there and finish second. We didn’t win the state championship (with last week’s victory).”
Quarterback Henry Haeffner remembers going down to Champaign as a freshman spectator at the title game.
“We got to watch them play,” the senior said, “and now we have an opportunity to avenge that loss. We got a taste of it and now we are here for more.”
Stepping onto the turf field at Memorial Stadium as players instead of sitting in the stands as spectators will be a once in a lifetime opportunity.
“Just walking out of the tunnel for the first time, seeing all of those fans,” said junior Jordan Hassan. “We are trying to bring it home for them. It’s going to be awesome. I had brothers who couldn’t do this. I’m speechless.”
Standing in Glenbard West’s way of the second state title in program history (first in 1983) is a formidable foe in Lincoln-Way East, which enters with an identical record of 13-0 and a similar style of play. The two programs last met in the second round in 2010 with the Hilltoppers emerging with a 42-28 win.
The Griffins feature an explosive offense, led by quarterback Tom Fuessel, which has averaged nearly 36 points per game this fall. The squad has been especially impressive of late, going over the 40-point plateau in five of their past eight contests.
Lincoln-Way East beat Benet 37-13 Saturday to reach the final.
“Their quarterback is probably one of the top two or three players in the state,” Hetlet said. “He is a candidate for player of the year. He is explosive. Their other skill players are good and they have a good offensive line. They are a run-first team but they throw the ball well. Their QB is quite the athlete, as good of an athlete as we’ve seen.”
Defensively, the Griffins are just as strong and will play a physical brand of football.
“They are tough to run against and they are tough to throw against,” the coach said. “They have no weaknesses. They have real tough kids. Back in 2010, that was the most physical game we’ve ever played.”
A close, low-scoring affair isn’t out of the question and that would suit Hetlet just fine.
“I’d love that,” he said. “It’s the biggest challenge we have faced all year and that is what you want in a state championship game.”
Despite the brighter lights and the bigger crowd, the mentality won’t change for the Hilltoppers.
“We are thinking about being 1-0 at the end of the week,” said senior running back Devante Toney. “There is no tomorrow so leave it all on the field.”
In Saturday’s win over Lake Zurich, the Hilltoppers early on appeared like they were going to cruise into the state title game, jumping out to a 19-0 halftime lead.
Haeffner connected with Nate Hokenson for a 73-yard touchdown on the second play from scrimmage and Toney added a 1-yard TD run on the team’s second possession. Haeffner then found Nathan Marcus for a 22-yard score one minute before intermission.
But the visitors clawed their way back, first scoring on a 94-yard fumble return before turning another Glenbard West turnover into a touchdown late in the third quarter.
Lake Zurich would then get the ball back twice but one drive resulted in a punt and the final possession was halted by a Tyler Dayton interception.
“It takes a special group,” Hetlet said. “Like I said at the beginning of the playoffs, you need luck and you have to be playing right at the right time and you need to get a bounce here and there. But these kids deserve it. They have worked so hard and have been committed to the program.”
“They (senior class) were freshman when we went down in 2009 and some of them experienced it. They said then that they wanted to go downstate. It’s a special group, they are like a family, a real close football family.”