The Wheaton Warrenville South Tigers this weekend will celebrate and remember the school’s 20th anniversary and its football program’s first state championship.
Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series about the 20th anniversary of Wheaton Warrenville South, the move from Wheaton Central High School to Wheaton Warrenville South and the Tigers’ first state championship.
After a controversial move from Wheaton Central High School, also the old Hubble Middle School, to Wheaton Warrenville South and a four-year buildup of postseason losses, the 1992 Tigers were passionate, hungry and ready to be on top.
“A storybook program”
In 1992, District 200 closed Wheaton Central High School and moved students and staff to what is now Wheaton Warrenville South, after years of debates over which building—1993 Tiger Trail or 603 N. Main Street—should house Wheaton high school students.
“We had to transition from (Wheaton Central) a school and come back to this location, rename the school—so there was a lot of political drama… But we were still, identifiably, very much orange and black—and (still) Tigers. In that move back to Wheaton Warrenville South, we played the most storybook program at that time,” said Wheaton Warrenville South Coach Ron Muhitch, the defensive coordinator for the 1992 championship team.
From 1988 to 1992, the Tigers finished each season a step closer to a state title. In '88, they lost the quarterfinal game. In '89, they lost the semifinal game. They lost 24-0 in '90 to Mount Carmel, and 24-14 on a controversial end-of-game, fourth down call in '91 to the same opponent, Muhitch said.
Without a single state title under their belts, the Tigers, 13-0, went to Springfield in November 1992 to face area powerhouse and seasoned state champs, the Joliet Catholic Hilltoppers.
“We battled Joliet Catholic for almost four quarters. We were behind and it had a similar feel, coming down to the last two minutes, that it was going to end up like that last two years: close, but still without our first state title," Muhitch said.
“We had to kick with 12 seconds on the clock… This is why my hair is gray.”
Near the end of the fourth quarter, the Tigers got the ball near the 25-yard line. Down three points with 12 seconds on the clock and no timeouts, the Tigers had to kick a field goal to tie the game and send it into overtime.
“We kick it, and of course, by the time everybody is done jumping up and down… The yellow flag floats down to the ground," Muhitch said.
"We had one kid still standing on the sideline… and not enough guys on the line of scrimmage.”
With a five-yard penalty, the Tigers took a second kick to tie the game.
In the first overtime, both teams scored, sending the state final into a second tiebreaking session.
In the second overtime, Muhitch said, “They got the ball first and fumbled on the third (or second) down. So, as defensive coordinator… We got the ball… We didn’t know if we were going to line up and kick the field goal, or you can run a play."
They decided to run a play, giving the ball to running back Phil Adler.
“He book the ball, bounced off a couple tackles and ran it in for 10 yards (for a) touchdown and the Tigers’ first state title.”
"That’s what sports should really be about, you know?"
Muhitch remembered hearing the announcers’ commentaries after the game, “’All of Wheaton and all of Warrenville have just emptied out into the field,’” the coach recalled. “Because it was just—pandemonium. It felt like, literally, everyone that had followed the Tigers for all those years celebrated that touchdown with us, and therefore, our first state championship.”
Wheaton Warrenville South Principal Chuck Baker, who led Wheaton Central through its transition to Wheaton Warrenville South and had a hand in naming it Wheaton Warrenville South, remembered the celebration that ensued after Adler’s touchdown.
“Those kids on that team had every reason in the world to celebrate wildly,” he said.
But after the brief hoopla, the Tigers turned their attention to their DVC rival and soon-to-be Class 6A victors, the Naperville North Huskies.
Led by Adler, the Tigers formed a tunnel that was so narrow, the Huskies had to run through it, Baker said.
“And as they ran through, the Wheaton Warrenville South kids shouted in their ears, ‘DVC, DVC, DVC, DVC,’ cheering them on to win.”
To this day, (the Naperville North coach) and I still get a little teary-eyed when we recall that. He claims North won based on the sportsmanship (of their) archrivals.”
“No adults told those kids to do that. I didn’t tell them to do that… They as student athletes understood what it is to reach that level… and formed that line and stood there and as they ran through with, ‘DVC’ in their ears, it was a moment. I’ve never forgotten it."
The Tigers '92 head coach, John Thorne, now head coach at North Central College, said since that season, he's received thanks and reminders of the Tigers' sportsmanship.
"That's what sports should really be about, you know? The 1992 team, they were really special people... They did wonderful things on and off the field, and that's just one state championship you can't ever forget."
The Tiger legacy
The 2012 Tigers are familiar with the 1992 team, and will celebrate players who set the tone for the programs that followed.
“I show the highlight tape every single year after ’92 to every Tiger program,” Muhitch said. “We start the season with that drama… Relived so it’ll never die. It will always be known as the great hurdle that the Tigers got over in 1992.”
Preparing for the alumni homecoming this Saturday, Muhitch said he talked with his players Monday about the importance of a homecoming game for the alumni.
“(Alumni) 20 years later, they’re coming back and are going to relive that memory. Some with less hair than others, maybe a few pounds more than when they played, but they will cherish that moment of being the first group to win state,” he said.
The Wheaton Warrenville South Tigers play Glenbard North 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 5 at Wheaton Warrenville South.