York High School has been playing football for 102 years, but it had never experienced a season like this, as the 12-0 Dukes sought their first-ever state championship berth Saturday when they hosted one of the area’s perennial powers in the Class 8A semifinals.

For decades, they were synonymous athletically with its boys Cross Country dominance legendary coach Joe Newton built over 54 years, including 28 state titles and another seventeen second- or third-place finishes. But fifth-year Head Coach Mike Fitzgerald fired up the football excitement the last two falls after developing scoreboard-lighting offenses and All-Area quarterbacks as an assistant at high-level programs such as Marist and Naperville North and in his first head coaching job at Wheaton-St. Francis.

“People want a lot of different things, but the ‘want’ is empty if you’re not willing to put in the work,” said Fitzgerald at Thursday’s practice in Elmhurst. “But these kids have put in the work, stayed consistent with it. Just really proud of how it’s all come to light and see the hard work pay off.”

“I used to live right behind this stadium, come to every game. I’ve seen the struggles this program has had. I dreamed of putting on this uniform, playing on Fridays,” said senior wide receiver Charie Specht. “My goal growing up wasn’t to go to a state championship, it was just to put on this jersey and now we’re one step away from it, so it’s a blessing, truly.”

“Since we got here as freshmen, we’ve been buying into Coach Fitz’s culture of pounding the stone. [We] talked about trusting in the process because when you pound a stone, you don’t really see progress and it’s not about that last hit, it’s about the plenty of times you hit it before that, because there’s cracks on the inside and you don’t really see it,” said senior linebacker David Loch. 

Added senior quarterback Matt Vezza: “You know, we weren’t seeing results early on that we wanted, but we stuck to that motto, that belief, that connection, and we’re doing great things this year.”

The Dukes outscored the season’s first three opponents by a combined 154-7 score. Then came the West Suburban Silver gauntlet, sweeping their next three games in closer, lower-scoring battles against the conference’s other eventual playoff qualifiers, Downers Grove North (in overtime), Lyons Township and longtime league front-runner Glenbard West.

“Our conference is fantastic,” said senior defensive lineman John Renier. “That competition prepared us for where we are now and I think if we didn’t have that sort of competition, we wouldn’t be here.”

“The West Suburban Silver is a great conference and you gotta bring it every week,” adds Fitzgerald added. “I think that builds the right habits, practice habits, the right preparation to get yourself ready for an opportunity like this in the playoffs, where you’ve got to be ready week in and week out.”

While York was ending a 10-year playoff drought last season and being eliminated in the first round, Saturday’s opponent, Loyola Academy, spent that decade appearing in six state title games, winning twice. They likely travel to Elmhurst for Saturday afternoon’s matchup, still stinging from a semifinal loss a year ago.

But “d” isn’t just for “Dukes.”  It’s for “donuts.” As in the celebratory Victory Donuts that get served the morning after each win to the team’s biggest but littlest fans. Those would be Fitzgerald’s three young children, with the coach posting pictures of them devouring the sweet treats on social media.

“Before we weren’t winning a lot, so it was just a week here, a week there. But when you have a six-year-old, a four-year-old and a two-year-old, they’re waking up at six in the morning after a long Friday night, asking where the donuts are, so it kind of turned into a fun tradition,” Fitzgerald said. “And then the parents got me this Victory Donut plate with all their names on it, so the kids are having a ball with it, and now we’re delivering to neighbors, so it’s gotten a little out of control.”

They went into Saturday hungry for two more servings. Suppose York delivers the “baker’s dozen” versus the Ramblers to punch that first-ever ticket to the title game in Champaign a week from Saturday. In that case, it could potentially come against one of those aforementioned conference rivals to set up ultimate 2022 bragging rights: That’s if Glenbard West can spring an upset on the road in another 8A semifinal against top-seeded Lincoln-Way East.