By Jason Maholy
Two seasons ago, Chicago Christian qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
The Knights had gone even longer without a conference championship.
Thirteen seasons, to be precise. Some freshman on this year’s team weren’t born the last time the program had won a conference title. The iPhone had yet to be invented.
That drought ended last week when they defeated Aurora Christian, 21-14, to conclude an abbreviated but historic season for the Class 2A program in Palos Heights. Chicago Christian finished 5-1 overall and 4-0 in the Metro Suburban Red.
As the final seconds ticked off the scoreboard, coach Nick Cook raised his arms, pumped his fists and hugged anyone he could find. Moments later he was provided the first Gatorade shower of his coaching career, courtesy of a group of players who would run through a wall for him.
“They got me, and I didn’t see it coming,” he said.
He was soaking wet on a cool April night, and he couldn’t have cared less.
Many Knights seniors — large young men sporting smeared eye black and sweat-tousled hair — cried as they hugged their coaches and one another; proud of what they had accomplished and at the same time struck by the reality that their high school football careers were over. The show of emotion seemed to be a cathartic release after all they had given to the program and each other the past four years.
“Unbelievable,” said Cook, the architect who has led the resurgence of a proud program that endured trying times for nearly a decade before getting back to the postseason in 2018. “These guys mean everything to me. That group of seniors — all the offseason stuff, not just the weights — everything we do as far as our team-building and leadership, they’ve checked all those boxes 100 percent of the time.
“This is on their backs.”
Three of those seniors — linebacker AJ Kuipers and defensive linemen Hunter Sperling and Otto Van Dellen — led an inspired defensive effort that set the tone early. Sperling had three sacks and six tackles for losses, Kuipers finished with a team-high 11 tackles, and Van Dellen had a sack and a 24-yard pick-six. His touchdown on the Eagles’ opening drive put the Knights on the board and gave them a lead they would never relinquish.
Van Dellen nearly scored a touchdown two weeks prior in a Senior Night win over Bremen, a Class 5A program. Then he picked off a pass in a 41-14 rout of Aurora Central Catholic in Week 5.
“It felt great,” he said of stepping front of a screen pass and seeing nothing but green grass in front of him. “It was similar to last week. I read the route, stayed on the tackle’s hip, saw the ball, went for it and took it off.”
Knights quarterback Johnny Dieck — another senior, albeit one who this season played high school football for the first time — ran for 76 yards and a touchdown. Junior running back/wide receiver Luke Jelderks ran for a touchdown.
Chicago Christian was 1-8 in Cook’s first season at the school in 2015, improved to 3-3 in 2016 and got one game better in 2017 — when this year’s seniors were freshman. Those players helped lay the foundation for what would have been a third-consecutive playoff appearance, if not for the pandemic.
Cook noted this year’s seniors have during their high school years attended a collective 1,000 or so “champions meetings” — classroom sessions Cook and his coaching staff conduct before every practice and workout. The meetings are more about developing strong young men and leaders than they are about football.
“And now they’re champions,” he said.
On a wall in the Knights’ locker room is a line. Below the line is a log of the work the players have put in; above it is written their goals — qualifying for the playoffs, winning a conference championship and winning a state title.
The players who will graduate this year checked two of those boxes during their time at the school.
“For four years we asked them who’s going to be the group that keeps climbing this ladder and gets this program above that line?” Cook said. “I’m just excited and so proud of the kids. I’m absolutely elated.”
The 280-pound Sperling, who played in varsity games as a freshman and was a linebacker and running back as a sophomore, worked around raw emotions to sum up his high school career and the program’s accomplishments during his time there. He and his teammates had been working toward that moment — being crowned conference champs — since last fall, despite not knowing if they would ever again play high school football.
“It’s just awesome,” he said. “Everything we’ve been through, the things we’ve persevered through, the morning lifts — going to the gym at 4 a.m. since last October. These guys are my brothers for life, they mean so much to me. They’re my lifelong friends.
“It’s different here,” he continued, referring to attending and playing for Chicago Christian. “Our first goal is to be Christ-like men, and the second is to win on the field. But we always keep in mind to be like Christ-like men first, and that’s really what’s important around here and that’s what makes us so strong.”
Sperling will continue his football career at Hillsdale College, a private school in Hillsdale, Michigan.
Van Dellen expressed a similar sentiment.
“This has been my family for the past four years,” he said. “I’m so proud of everyone and all the hard work, all the summers — it’s just finally paying off. This is our family.”