A different core of players and a different way of winning a football game, but one thing remains the same: Batavia is Upstate Eight Conference River champions again.
In a showdown with the River title on the line at St. Charles East Friday, the Saints held the Bulldogs to a season-low 19 points. Batavia's defense was even stingier, forcing 3-and-outs on the first four possessions of the game on its way to a 19-6 victory.
Batavia (8-0, 5-0) owns at least a share of the conference title which it can win outright by beating Elgin next Friday. The Bulldogs repeated despite graduating 12 seniors who are playing at some level of college football this fall.
"I can't stress enough, this is not the same team as last year," Bulldogs coach Dennis Piron said. "I know we have some guys back but this is a whole new football team. We're counting on a lot of juniors. Really pleased with our senior class but our juniors are delivering and coming through for us this year."
All three of the Saints' losses this year are to undefeated teams. St. Charles East (5-3, 4-1) struggled to run the football against Batavia and its 8 defenders in the box, relying on Brannon Barry's big plays at wide receiver on the few times they were able to drive the ball.
Batavia had scored at least 30 points in every game before Friday but 19 was more than enough the way its defense played. James Millette and Mickey Watson both made a pair of tackles for loss while seemingly every Batavia defensive starter delivered a big hit. Piron also highlighted Rob Bowman's play on special teams.
"We've got a good football team, and I think we are capable of playing lots of different styles of football," Piron said. "This was a little different type of game tonight but I love having a defensive battle."
Marquise Jenkins, who was nursing a sore shoulder following a tackle on Joe Hoscheit late in the game, had Saints quarterback Jimmy Mitchell running for his life on several occasions.
"We played good, obviously we can always improve no matter what," Jenkins said. "A coupe big plays we have to tighten up. The win is great but we've still got stuff we need to fix."
The Saints managed just 14 yards in the first quarter on 10 plays from scrimmage and punted three times. The Bulldogs started slow too but on their third drive punched in a 1-yard touchdown by Anthony Scaccia for a 6-0 lead after Micah Coffey had scrambled 12 yards on the previous third-down conversion.
Batavia extended to a 19-0 halftime lead. Anthony Thielk broke a tackle to turn a short gain on a third-and-1 run into a 49-yard touchdown and 12-0 score with 4:36 left in the second quarter. Coffey then directed a perfect two-minute offense capped by a 19-yard strike to Zach Strittmatter who got his feet down in the back of the end zone with just 14.6 seconds left before halftime.
He finished with 8 catches for 96 yards while Coffey went 14-for-25 for 168 yards.
"We saw their cornerbacks were playing inside on me and Micah was throwing perfect balls and the offensive line was giving him amazing time," Strittmatter said. "I think all year we've let up one sack or something like that, so it was a team effort to move the ball."
The Saints scored their only touchdown in the third quarter, a 1-yard run by Erik Anderson set up by Barry's 50-yard reception.
Trailing 19-6, Mike Eyre recovered a fumble in the fourth quarter to halt a Batavia drive at the Saints' 15. The Bulldogs reached the Saints' 11 on their next possession but were stopped on a 4th-and-1.
Mitchell drove the Saints 80 yards in 16 plays but a fourth-down pass from the 9 was just over a diving Hoscheit's hands in the end zone with two minutes left. Batavia then ran out the clock.
"They are a really athletic team," Barry said. "We wanted to come out and give them all we had. It's tough when you go against a team that athletic and we were trying to put our best people on the field and give them our best shot and spread things out. We just struggled at some points but also had some high points. We want to get a lot more football out of this season. There's no one on this team who gave up tonight and I'm so proud of them."
Barry did all he could catching 7 passes for 120 yards despite facing double teams much of the night and all the fourth quarter. Hoscheit led the Saints on the ground with 57 yards on 11 carries while Anderson was held to 43 yards on 19 attempts.
"We play very fast with a high degree of intensity and a number of our defensive linemen get after you, our linebackers will hit you and safeties that will just rock you," Piron said. "It's tough to go against that all night. You are beat up when you play us."
Scaccia was the back who had the big game Friday with 157 yards on 21 carries.
"It's tough when they have eight guys in the box like that and we wanted to establish the run," Saints coach Mike Fields said. "We just really weren't able to. We were able to get Brannon loose a couple times but all of a sudden they are double, triple teaming him and that's tough to do as well and that's a compliment to him as a ballplayer. We have to look at the film and we have to find some other guys to be weapons and if we can do that we'll be OK. He showed why he's one of the best receivers in the area."
Neither team made many mistakes -- there was just one combined turnover and four penalties. But the Saints know they'll need to find a little more offense to get where they want to go in the playoffs.
"We're learning," Fields said. "We've played three of the best teams in Illinois and it looks like all three will go undefeated. We're fighting with the best teams in the state."