By Jeff Vorva

It’s funny that a man who graduated from Downers Grove South is now one of the toasts of the town at Downers Grove North.

Coach Joe Horeni, a South grad, helped guide the 2023 North football team to the Illinois High School Association Class 7A state football championship game. Though the Trojans lost to Mount Carmel, 35-10, on Nov. 25 at Hancock Stadium in Normal, it marked just the third time in school history the program made it to the final game and first since winning it in 2004.

Horeni may have grown up with great disdain for North when he was playing for South, but right now, his attitude is that no matter what the school, Downers Grove is Downers Grove.

“Downers Grove is a special place,” the coach said. “I’m glad that we were able to go this far. I think the kids know that the standard now is to get back here and take home the big trophy.”

He said he could identify what these players are going through in the community.

“The same things they have gone through as kids, I’ve gone through,” he said. “I played with the Panthers and pretty much all of these kids played with the Panthers. We’re all from around here. That’s what’s unique about Downers Grove.”

Sophomore quarterback Owen Lansu was proud of the way the community rallied around the team during the playoffs. “It motivated us to know that everyone was cheering for us,” he said. “Downtown, they had Downers Grove North flags all over. We felt the support the whole way through.”

The Trojans finished the season up at 11-3.

They opened up the season with three tough games and got by with a 27-22 win over Wheaton St. Francis, a 35-13 win over rival Downers Grove South, and a rare 31-7 win over Glenbard West – snapping a 16-game losing streak to the Hilltoppers.

At that point, people started taking notice of the Trojans and they started gaining confidence. They were 5-0 when they suffered back-to-back losses to York and Lyons and two-way starter Noah Battle was injured for both of those games.

Once he was back on the field, the Trojans rolled to six more wins before running up against Mount Carmel, who was the defending state champion and ranked first in Class 7A by the Associated Press all season.

“I’m obviously really proud of our team,” Horeni said. “It’s been a great ride. We did not return a lot of starters after last year’s season. A lot of young guys played for us and our senior leadership did a fantastic job. A lot of guys stepped up who didn’t get a lot of snaps last year and were leaders this year.

“They set the standard as leaders.”

Defensive standout Cael Brezina thought the team proved doubters wrong.

“The expectations on this team were not very high, but I thought we were able to prove who we are and what we are,” the linebacker said. “We’ve been friends for a long time and were able to stay together this whole season.”

Life around the North athletic department has been good, lately. In 2022-23, the boys basketball team won 32 games and finished fourth in the state in Class 4A. In early November, the boys cross country team finished first in the state in Class 3A, while the girls cross country team finished second in the state.

Now this.

“The basketball team had a great run, and others thrived off their success,” Horeni said. “Our girls cross country team took second in state, and our boys cross country team won the whole thing. Our baseball team had a really good year last year as well. It’s exciting that football can hold up our end of the bargain and be a part of it.

“It’s a great group and this town loves winning high school sports and we’re excited to contribute to the success.”

Downers Grove North players accept the runner-up trophy after a loss to Mount Carmel in the Class 7A titles game. Photo by Jeff Vorva
Trojan juniors Ethan Kist, left, and Charlie Cruse wrap up Mount Carmel’s Kevin Gardner during the Class 7A state championship game on Nov. 25. Photo by Jeff Vorva
Coach Joe Horeni gives a talk before the Trojans hit the field for a state championship game against Mount Carmel. Photo by Jeff Vorva