Jerry Verde and his staff at Crete-Monee could see two years ago the possibility of winning a state football championship.
The stars were lining up for 2012.
“We knew we had a special group coming up,” Verde said. “The freshmen went 9-0, and had a lot of talent, and we brought sophomores Laquon Treadwell, Lance Lenoir, Austin Rosenfeldt and Kyle Tilley up to the varsity. And the sophomore team itself was a very good team.
“We knew then they had a legitimate shot at doing well as sophomores, but it’s so difficult to win it for a first time.”
Indeed, it proved impossible in 2010 or 2011 for the Warriors to advance past the quarterfinals. They were stopped in Danville in 2010 and by Richwoods in Peoria last year.
This year, Crete-Monee did more than get there. Verde’s crew beat Cary-Grove in Class 6A to cap an undefeated season and capture the school’s first IHSA team championship in any sport. Verde joins Mount Carmel coach Frank Lenti as the Times’ Co-Coach of the Year
“It’s a great honor,” Verde said.
He and Lenti chatted last week when the coaches and captains of the state champions were introduced at Soldier Field before the Bears hosted Seattle. Only then did the magnitude of the achievement begin to sink in.
“I don’t get too caught up in the extra stuff, but that was cool,” Verde said. “I don’t think I’ll be able to fully enjoy this until the holiday break. I’m still collecting equipment. That’s when I’ll be able to sit down and reflect.”
When he does, he’ll be able to grin about the payoff for the last six seasons of hard work as head coach, which followed as many years as an assistant at Homewood-Flossmoor, alma mater Marian Catholic, and the College of St. Francis in Joliet. Then, he'll think about the future of the Warriors’ program.
“These juniors on this year’s team still have not lost a game in high school, going undefeated as freshmen and sophomores as well,” Verde said. “And the seniors, they went 24-1 in two years of varsity football.”
That one defeat, to Richwoods in last year’s quarterfinal, was avenged this season in the quarterfinal.
The degree of difficulty reaching the feat made it that much more fulfilling for Verde and Company. Crete-Monee trailed both Richwoods and semifinal foe Lemont by 10 points in the second half before rallying to win.
“It’s just resilience,” Verde said. “Even though the regular season wasn’t all that competitive, the kids still worked hard in practice, knowing the goal they were working for.”
In the previous five seasons, Verde had announced the team’s goal before summer camp. It ranged from having a winning season to making the postseason to winning the Southland Conference to going far in the playoffs.
This year was different. This year the goal was to win a state championship. But first Crete-Monee had to get there.
“Against Richwoods, four straight possessions, we had turnovers,” Verde recalled. “At the time, you’re coaching in the moment, but now, to think about it, to come back from that and score a touchdown and go ahead, it’s pretty amazing.”
By the end of the state title game, all Verde could do was beam, appreciating his team’s effort and his good fortune. He’d been there before, a defensive captain at middle linebacker when undefeated Marian Catholic won the 1993 Class 4A title.
“It’s a lot more difficult to win as a coach, Verde said. “Not to diminish what we did 19 years ago, but as a player, you fit into the system and you play. I remember making the defensive calls, but you play your position.
“Coaching a team to a title is a lot more difficult, but it might be more rewarding. You invest so much time and effort into it that the fulfillment of winning a state championship is hard to describe. It’s up there like the birth of your child, or your wedding day.
“You’re never more alive than when you’re involved in something like this, getting the players to understand your concepts, seeing their growth as players over the years. We cultivated a lot of these kids for 3 1/2 years.”