Downers Grove North relishes run to runner-up in Class 7A state final

Trojans fall 35-10 to Mt. Carmel on Saturday; finish 11-3

Downers Grove North’s captains receive the runner-up trophy after their 35-10 loss to Mt. Carmel in the Class 7A championship on Saturday, Nov. 25, 2023 at Hancock Stadium in Normal.

NORMAL – The tears welling in Downers Grove North senior linebacker Cael Brezina’s eyes could tell the story of the journey on their own.

The 2023 Downers Grove North tale didn’t conclude with the storybook ending of winning a state title.

Mount Carmel achieved its IHSA record-tying 15th state title with a 35-10 win over Downers North on Nov. 25 in the Class 7A final at Illinois State University’s Hancock Stadium.

“Just the work we’ve put in in the offseason, and I think expectations of this team (on the outside) were not very high going in,” Brezina said. “But week by week, we proved what we are and who we are. Going into this game, the big thing was ‘We’re a family.’ That’s what has kept us together all year.”

The journey began with a 5-0 record. It included a convincing victory over Glenbard West for the first time in 16 years. The Trojans achieved seven regular-season wins for the first time since 2005.

En route to Normal, Downers North knocked off Kenwood, dealt Hersey its only loss, beat Lincoln-Way West and blanked No. 1-seeded Normal Community 42-0 in the state semifinal. Downers North finished 11-3.

“It’s a bunch of kids. We all live by each other. We’re friends. We’ve been friends for a long time and that’s why this means a lot – this whole thing. This whole season and everything we’ve accomplished,” Brezina said.

“The thing that’s unique about everybody up here is we’re all from Downers Grove,” coach Joe Horeni said. “Being I grew up in the town and the same things they went through as kids, I went through. ... Downers Grove is a special place. I’m glad we were able to go this far. I think our kids know the standard now is get back here and take home the big trophy. I’m proud of our community. I’m proud of our administration. I’m proud of our kids. Like Cael said, they’ve known each other for a long time. These are bonds from their elementary school going forward.”

In sophomore quarterback Owen Lansu’s eyes, the communal support “felt like it really motivated” them.

“Everybody was cheering for us. Downtown, they’ve got DGN flags all over the local businesses and stuff like that, so we felt really supported the whole way through from week one to now,” Lansu said.

Trojans two-way standout Noah Battle felt the belief of reaching the state finals originated from the first day of summer camp.

“We all had the belief in ourselves,” said Battle, who finished the game with 60 yards on 15 carries. “We had something to prove. Like Cael said, nobody really believed in us to start the year. The predictions were like three wins, two wins, it was absurd. So we took that, we had a chip on our shoulder and we went out there and just played with all heart. It got us to the biggest stage you can be in high school. Really proud of our guys and the hard work we put in.”

Battle finished his senior season with 1,158 rushing yards and 17 rushing scores. The Trojans offensive line was led by two seniors, Luke Klempir and Colton Ford, and three sophomores, Anthony Bertacchi, Aiden Solecki and Omar Duran.

“I love my guys,” Battle said about the offensive line. “The line, I don’t know where I’d be without them. Just amazing. They helped me throughout the year. I had their back. They had my back. We battled a lot of adversity to get to where we are. Really proud of our guys.”

“Last year, I got a lot of mentoring from the seniors. All five of our O-linemen were seniors,” Klempir said. “I got to start two games (last year) and it taught me a lot. Now we only have two seniors starting and three sophomores, so I think (Ford and I have been) just helping the sophomores get better and better. From (the first game of the season) to now, watching the improvement of the line has been absolutely incredible and they are going to be phenomenal in the future.”

A small purple decal was on the back of every Trojans helmet in memory of beloved longtime coach Pete Ventrelli.

It reads “The Right Stuff” – just the way coach would preach.

“We put that on our helmet as soon as we found out he passed (in October),” Horeni said.

Ventrelli was an Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Famer and coached Downers North for 15 seasons, compiling a 107-53 record.

“A lot of guys on staff worked with coach Ventrelli,” Horeni said. “He was a great man that did things the right way. ... Every game after he passed we read a poem he would always read to the kids that they would recite together.”

The general theme: “You’re spending your day doing this, so let’s make it worth something.”

“Just a lot of great connections and we’re hoping we made him proud today. A great man that set Downers Grove up football-wise for a long time,” Horeni said.