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Mount Carmel head coach Frank Lenti cheers on his team after they defeated Glenbard North for the state title. The team's first place trophy is held in the background. | Patrick Gleason~For Sun-Times Media
CHAMPAIGN — To understand what happened here on a cold Saturday night as another prep football season came to an end, it’s useful to consider it from the perspective of the Lenti family.
Frank Lenti coached Mount Carmel to its 11th state championship, beating Glenbard North 28-14 at Memorial Stadium.
The title came 10 years and four trips down I-57 after the Caravan last won state with Frank Lenti Jr. as a starting wideout for his dad.
Lenti Jr. was here this time, too, as he has been for all 10 titles won during his dad’s 29-year tenure. It’s about all he’s known, watching the Caravan win state and he’s had a unique perspective on it. When Mount Carmel won that first title at Hancock Stadium in Normal, Frank Jr. was a rug rat not yet in kindergarten, probably as interested as playing with other kids as with the action on the field.
He got older, growing into the roles held by other coaches’ kids, of water boy and ball boy, and then to playing for his dad.
Now Lenti Jr. is a grown man, a member of the University of Illinois’ athletic video production staff with an Emmy to his credit, won earlier this year for his documentary on the Illini football team’s 2011 preseason camp.
He’s also been along for the ride this season with the Caravan, and he was struck by how similar these players’ experience has been to his own.
“I told them after the Bolingbrook game [a second-round playoff loss last year to the eventual 8A champ], ‘You have a shot to go to the Prep Bowl,’ ’’ Lenti Jr. said. “That’s what we did. We lost the second round my junior year, rolled through that. We used that as a ramp to accelerate ourselves into the following season. I think these kids did that.”
Now Mount Carmel is atop the Illinois football world again and Lenti Jr. couldn’t help but reflect.
“It doesn’t feel like that long ago that we won it,” he said. “But on the other hand, it feels like an eternity that we got to celebrate like that.”
Frank Lenti has celebrated like that so many times over the past quarter-century. What makes each of these special journeys memorable is watching them through the eyes of his players, who often have not done it before.
“It just recharges the batteries a little,” he said of winning again. “But more so because you see the looks on the kids’ faces. You see the excitement and you see the joy and the gratification of the accomplishment.”
Like a lot of great coaches, Lenti can’t help but regret the ones that got away.
“The last three times we were here, when we didn’t win it, you’re heartbroken for some of those kids who are really invested in being here,” he said.
“In 2005, it broke my heart that the Sulo twins [Derek and Dominic], who were captains of that team, didn’t win a state championship, because they were around as ball boys and water boys and came up through the program. I still think about that one, more than some of the others, because they’re family.”
“Family” is a word you hear often around Caravan football and, as Lenti would say, the program doesn’t just talk the talk, it walks the walk.
Two of his assistants, his brother David and Pete Kammholz, have been with Lenti for all 29 seasons, 385 games and 326 wins of his head coaching career. A few others, including Mike Minogue, Bill Nolan and Mark Antonietti, have been around almost as long.
It says something about Lenti that he inspires such loyalty in his staff. And it’s a two-way street. Lenti, 61, has spent almost half his life as Mount Carmel’s head coach and it probably seems like almost that long that he’s had to face questions about how much longer he’d be around.
Here’s what he said about that on Saturday night: “Right now, the way I look at it, the Carmelites are going to have to kick me out. I still enjoy coaching and I think the biggest part of our coaching is teaching our players life lessons.
“[Saturday] is a perfect example. The semifinal and the final game we start the game down 7-0. Our kids never flinched. They just hung in there.
“We always talk about in every big game, you’re going to face adversity. How you respond to that adversity [will] make you or break you as a team.”
At Mount Carmel, the response is often one that makes history.