Adorning the wall on the hallway leading into the Providence Catholic football locker room rests a wooden plaque documenting each of the program’s nine state titles. Underneath the phrase, “Play Like a Champion Today,” nine stenciled-in years in sparkling gold have been painted to remember the teams that sat in that very locker room, that represented the village of New Lenox, that played on that same field and accomplished the ultimate goal of being named champions.
1987. 1991. 1994. 1995. 1996. 1997. 2001. 2002. 2004. And then? A blank spot.
There’s one open spot left on the plaque, an open spot touched by the hands of each Celtics team the last 10 seasons that had hoped their year would join the other nine. The paint has worn away. The original wood is beginning to reveal itself. And as each member of the 2014 team, led by head coach Mark Coglianese, enters the locker room for summer camp, they too touch the barren spot on the plaque filled with history, wins and championships unparalleled by any program in Illinois over the last 20 years.
This is their time. And with every touch of the wooden plaque grows an increasing sense that this could be the year that the tenth and final spot is filled. The “Quest for X” has begun in New Lenox.
“It’s a big part of what this team wants to be. We want to leave our mark on the school like the teams of the past that won the nine state championships,” said Miles Boykin, the team’s star wide receiver bound for Notre Dame. “We want to get the ‘X’; we want to win a championship.”
Within those nine state titles, Providence Catholic also reeled off a 50-game win streak – the second longest in IHSA history – a four-peat from 1994 to 1997 and 24 straight playoff wins while sending dozens of student-athletes to play collegiately.
[EDGY Tim: 100 days to kickoff: Providence Catholic]
The architect of that magnificent run was Matt Senffner, who became the program’s first head coach in 1968, won 300 games – an IHSA record – during his 38-year career and has returned in 2014 to work with the offensive line.
For Senffner, the tradition built at Providence Catholic is still alive and well in the current athletes and is a driving force behind their motivation to succeed, to win and to Play Like Champions Today.
“I think all kids, whatever school they're in, they should have some pride in the past and the history of the school. You want to play at the end of the season and play your best,” he said. “That's what being a champion means, and I think all of that has to do with the rich tradition that we have. It's the way the school is organized; it's the charisma of the school.”
If Senffner’s presence in the locker room, in the huddle and on the field weren’t enough to motivate the Celtics, the man leading the way certainly is.
Coglianese was Senfnner’s defensive coordinator for eight of those nine state titles, and as the heir to the throne at Providence he’s quickly continued that tradition. In eight years at the helm he has won 58 games, qualifying for the playoffs in a brutally tough Catholic Blue League seven times and advanced to the 6A state title game in 2009. Most recently, Coglianese’s group qualified for the playoffs in 2013 and advanced to the 6A state quarterfinals before falling in the final minute to East St. Louis.
With plenty of returning starters, including three key offensive cogs, Coglianese believes his group is prepared to build on last season’s success.
“It’s a loss that still hurts a little bit, still haunts us. And hopefully that’s going to provide a little more energy and desire for this coming season,” he said. “The guys who were part of it realize how close they were: one play away from going to that next step and a possible championship.”
That next step will be taken by an explosive offensive trio as good as any team in the state. Boykin, a 6-foot-4 receiver who amassed 750 yards and 14 total touchdowns last year, is ranked as the second best player in Illinois, per Rivals.
Quarterback Justin Hunniford, fresh off a state title with the Providence baseball team, threw for more than 1,800 yards and 20 touchdowns and began his second season as the team’s starter perfecting his knowledge of new offensive coordinator Luke Senffner’s – Matt’s son – playbook. Across from Boykin is Iowa-bound Nate Vejvoda, who in just his third season of organized football caught 24 balls for 352 yards and three scores as a junior.
“It’s something special,” said Hunniford. “I don’t know who else can say they have two Division I receivers on their team: 6-foot-4, 6-foot-5 guys that can run very fast, can go up and get the ball. It’s just something that probably won’t happen again. It’s a very special thing to have those players.”
The defense can’t be forgotten, either. The Celtics bring back an experienced and improved group that has stressed two goals this summer.
“(We) need to play with some aggression more than anything,” said senior defensive end Jake Rost. “Once we start attacking and playing football I think we're going to be pretty good.”
Added senior linebacker Jimmy Sharkey: “Doing the right thing when it's supposed to be done. No mental mistakes.”
Like every team across the state preparing for the season, there are still question marks. The Celtics will have to replace an entire offensive line that was one of the best in the conference last year, though Coglianese said he’s been pleased with the group’s improvement since early summer workouts. Also, running back Dominic Lagone’s graduation has left a void at running back that must be filled to complement the stellar passing game.
The Celtics also will play one of the toughest schedules in the state. With a Week 1 matchup against rival Joliet Catholic and conference foes St. Rita, Loyola and Mount Carmel on the slate, nothing will come easy for this talented group as it attempts to paint their way into the Providence history books.
Entering the locker room each morning the Celtics are reminded of the greats before them. The nine state title trophies sit in the school’s hallway and there are posters all around Matt Senffner Field celebrating the past accomplishments.
The 2014 Providence Catholic Celtics understand that tradition well. And as they begin their own voyage, hoping to paint their name on that blank spot on the wall, they also understand they’re playing for much more than themselves. With a living legend on the sideline, his predecessor leading the way and a host of talent upperclassmen, hoisting a trophy in DeKalb in late November would not only be an accomplishment for this class, but also for the greats that have come before them.
“It’s more than just the team that you’re on now; it’s teams of the past that have won before, and you just want to continue that tradition,” Boykin said. “When you come to Providence, you don’t come to just play football; you come to win state.”