DeKALB – The last time Wheaton North won a state title in football was 35 years ago.
Some of those players, now fathers themselves, were in the stands to see the next entry in Falcons lore cemented.
The Falcons, behind a dominant overall team performance, rolled to a 35-6 victory over St. Rita in the Class 7A state title game Saturday at Northern Illinois University’s Huskie Stadium.
“[Those dads] had our backs the whole way,” Falcons coach Joe Wardynski said. “We’ve talked about trying to do something like this. We’ve had the same three state titles on our press box for all these years...now we can add 2021 to it.”
The Falcons’ journey to the finish line can be traced back to the shortened spring season where they defeated Batavia to close it out on that same Huskie Stadium turf.
Months later, in September the Falcons lost to the Bulldogs in overtime the third week of the season.
They didn’t lose another game, marching through Larkin, Hoffman Estates, Willowbrook and Brother Rice in the postseason to vie for the title.
“...From that point on, we kind of re-focused ourselves, I felt like, and started playing better team football,” Wardynski said. “[Saturday] was sort of a microcosm of the season in the fact that we were backed up a few times early on and instead of giving up a score, we forced [two] field goal [attempts] and fortunately, they didn’t convert on those. Offensively, we started putting things together.”
The Falcons took a 21-0 lead into the half, which was capped by a 28-yard fumble return for a touchdown by senior Trent Gabriele at the buzzer.
St. Rita opened the game with two missed field goals from 36 and 39 yards, respectively. Falcons quarterback Mark Forcucci (14 for 22, 302 yards, 2 touchdowns) later found Seth Kortenhoeven for a 38-yard touchdown for the initial 7-0 advantage to open the second quarter.
Wheaton North later forced a turnover-on-downs with 5:37 left in the half and turned it into a Forcucci touchdown to Casey Morrison, who was wide open down the sideline roughly one minute later for the 14-0 lead.
Kortenhoeven finished with a team-high seven catches for 158 yards and a touchdown.
The Falcons defense, led by Rex Kroger, Ross Dansdill, Chuck Neidballa and others, handled their end of the bargain, too.
St. Rita (11-3), runner-ups in a title game for the second consecutive season with a state series, was limited to 261 yards of total offense.
“That ‘bend-but-don’t-break’ thing is something we pride ourselves in,” said Dansdill, who finished with eight tackles. “...We like to call it ‘swarm to the football’. All that [means] is busting butts to the ball, and just, no matter what happens, get there.”
“We pick each other up,” Kroger added. “When one person misses, we’ve got four more guys there to make the play. That’s what we’ve done all year and that’s how we’ve been successful.”
In the second half, after Forcucci was intercepted, the Mustangs eventually cashed in on the rare mistake with an 11-yard rushing score from quarterback Tommy Ulatowski. The extra point ricocheted off the upright, preserving the 21-6 Wheaton North lead with 3:38 left in the third quarter.
Ulatowski went 17 for 36 with 189 yards and one interception.
St. Rita would get no closer as Luke Beedle’s two rushing scores helped clinch the Wheaton North win.
Beedle earned significant reps in the regular season after three-year starter Brayton Maske injured his knee in Week 6. Maske returned in the semifinal victory vs. Brother Rice, but suffered another injury and didn’t appear in the state final.
Beedle and Walker Owens picked up their workhorse regardless.
“Maske teaches me everything I know,” Beedle said following his 65-yard performance. “He’s been a great leader; great friend, and having him by my side the whole game, he’s always treating me [well]. Great person. Great player, and he makes me better every day.”
Mustangs coach Todd Kuska credited the Falcons for taking advantage of their opportunities, but was “just so proud” of his team for “fighting through everything for the last few years they’ve been here.”
“For these seniors, this is back-to-back state championship trips. I know it didn’t end the way we wanted to, but [there’s] a lot to be proud of for these guys,” Kuska said. “Hats off to Wheaton North on a great football game, but I just couldn’t be prouder of our guys.”
Ohio State recruit Kaleb Brown, who returned for the postseason after missing virtually the entire nine-game regular season, was overall grounded for 128 receiving yards on eight catches and only 20 rushing yards.
“...Just excited the way my team as a whole fought back after me going down,” Brown said. “It’s not that easy to bare as a team...Kudos to them. I mean, I wouldn’t be where I’m at if it wasn’t for them. It just means a lot to me [for my return]. I soaked it up on the field as much as I could. I kind of just tried to leave it all on the field as best as I could.”