Elmwood Park coach Luis Arroyo said his team is writing a Cinderella story this season. But who would believe it?
This is a program that hadn't won a conference championship in 27 years, hadn't produced a winning team or qualified for the state playoff since 1991 and hadn't won more than six games in a season since 1985.
Until last Friday.
Elmwood Park wrote another chapter to its fairy tale by beating Ridgewood 34-14 to conclude a 7-2 regular season, claim the Metro Suburban championship and secure a spot opposite perennial state power Joliet Catholic in the first round of the Class 5A playoff. Elmwood Park will host the Hilltoppers on Saturday night in a Class 5A match-up.
"We were all talking about Joliet Catholic. Everybody on the team thought we'd get them. We all had a gut feeling," said 6-foot-2, 285-pound senior offensive tackle Connor Murphy, referring to last Saturday's pre-pairings speculation.
"When we saw we got them, we said: 'Let's do it.' We saw it right away, the seedings. Everybody got excited. We figured we'd meet them sometime in the playoff, so why not in the first round? We would rather want to play a big team. We have played good teams but we haven't played a team of their caliber and reputation. We want to show that we are in the playoff for a reason, not just another team."
Murphy is one of a core of 17 seniors who have gone through four years of football at Elmwood Park. This is Arroyo's fifth year. His first four teams were 0-9, 1-8, 2-7 and 4-5. It wasn't pretty. But there has been progress. Murphy and his teammates acknowledge that all of the off-season conditioning and hard work has paid off this season.
"We stuck it out. All of us have a feeling: 'We did it. We're conference champions.' Others gave up and said we couldn't do it. And we did it," Murphy said. "Elmwood Park has forever been called the loser team. But when we won conference, Ridgewood and others said: 'Way to win, way to take it away from everybody. You proved yourselves.'
"The school never was behind us before. They always say: 'Why do you play football? We don't want to play for a losing team.' Now they are all behind us and support us. We had to prove ourselves to everyone. We worked hard in the summer for four years to get better. Now it is paying off."
Nobody is happier than Arroyo. A Holy Cross graduate of 1993, he coached at Evergreen Park, Ridgewood and St. Joseph before arriving at Elmwood Park. Having coached against Elmwood Park on several occasions, he knew what he was getting into. He knew it wouldn't be easy. But he relished the challenge of trying to turn a perennial losing program into a winner.
"I inherited a small school (enrollment: 1,000) that played against big schools," Arroyo said. "I knew it would be a challenge. I try to coach them to play this game. They didn't know what winning was all about. Play hard and learn the fundamentals, we told them. The mentality was a lot of hungry kids who wanted to play. We try to teach dedication and work in the off-season and work on things that will make you successful.
"It was very difficult and humbling at first. I was thinking I would be able to make some sort of impact in my first year. They had won only three games the year before I became head coach. Then we went 0-9 and 1-8 and 2-7 and I began to wonder if I had made the right decision.
"But the opportunity to run a program is priceless. It's my second home. I learned the off-season is absolutely critical to gaining every possible advantage. It really is a 365-day-a-year commitment...into the weight room, into speed work and explosion drills, exercises that they hadn't been exposed to."
Even though his team was struggling on the field, Arroyo could see progress during practice time. In Year 3, he didn't have to explain right or left formations. The kids realized that all of their time in the weight room was time well spent. They were getting bigger and stronger and faster and better. They were buying into what Arroyo was selling.
Despite last year's 4-5 finish, Arroyo identified a lot of positives. Elmwood Park split with Ridgewood, knocking them out of the playoff. "We knew if we could played better, we could have qualified for state," the coach said.
His message to Murphy and the other seniors? "Don't have any regrets. Get into the weight room. Do one more day of repetitions. These kids bought into what we were selling. This is a Cinderella story. It's a great thing to be a part of," Arroyo said.
"With 12 starters returning, we had high expectations to win some games and compete for the conference title. The kids believed it. This group of seniors had success at the lower levels. They competed well. They had confidence that they could compete with anyone."
Elmwood Park is 7-2 going into its first-round game against Joliet Catholic. The Tigers are averaging 28.2 points per game, have rushed for 2,000 yards and have intercepted 22 passes.
The offensive line is anchored by Murphy, 6-foot-1, 290-pound senior tackle Ray Morales, 6-foot-2, 250-pound senior center Jonathan Batula and 5-foot-9, 180-pound tight end Mike Tinajero. They block for a committee of running backs--5-foot-5, 150-pound senior David Benavidez, 5-foot-8, 170-pound senior Jimmy Gonzalez, 5-foot-10, 180-pound senior Carlos Sandoval and 5-foot-11, 169-pound junior James Angelico. Quarterback Patrick McNulty, a 5-foot-10, 165-pound senior, directs traffic.
The ball-carriers stepped up when starter Rocco Fanella broke his spine in Week 4. Benavidez has emerged as the leading rusher with over 500 yards while Gonzalez has rushed for 450.
In last Friday's 34-14 victory at Ridgewood, Benavidez rushed 15 times for 147 yards and scored on runs of 63, 6, 26 and 14 yards. Gonzalez carried 13 times for 121 yards.
The 4-4 defense features Angelico, 5-foot-9, 165-pound junior Trent Woods and 5-foot-7, 165-pound senior Gene Cadetto at linebacker, Tinajero at tackle, Sandoval at free safety and 5-foot-11, 165-pound senior Mitch Cervantes at cornerback. Sandoval has six interceptions while Woods has four, three against Fenton. Tinajero has 20 tackles for loss.
When Fanella went down, the team lost its vocal leader on the field. But the players bonded together. And Fanella remains a key component, cheering and encouraging his teammates from the sideline.
"We're like brothers out there," Murphy said. "When Fanella went down, we said we would play like every play was our last. When someone struggles, we boost them up. Everyone's drive has changed. We had size and talent in the past but we block better and run better now.
"Now we walk through the halls and in the gym and see the banner for the 2012 Metro Suburban Conference champions and we say: 'Hey, we're enshrined.' It means every time someone who didn't want to go 100 percent in the summer, we told him to go 100 percent and now it is paying off."