Rob Wicinski admits that when he arrived at Geneva as an assistant coach he "just didn't get" the football rivalry against Batavia.
"You've got to have two schools to have a rivalry, and they just pounded us," Wicinski said.
He's since been educated.
"I love Batavia, and I say that because they kind of complete Geneva," he said.
"There's nothing more special than that as a player to participate in, and when both teams are hitting on all cylinders it amps it up, makes it even more exciting."
The atmosphere should crackle Friday at Geneva's Burgess Field, where the Vikings host Batavia, each 5-0. Given the Upstate Eight Conference River Division competition this likely will decide the conference championship; Batavia comes in at 3-0 in league play, Geneva 2-0. After 93 meetings Geneva leads the series 50-38-5.
Dennis Piron, Batavia's first-year head coach after years as defensive coordinator, calls this game a "perfect storm" of the teams' records, the rankings Geneva No. 6 in Class 7A, Batavia No. 10 and community pride.
"It's not often for kids to play in games with this type of energy around them," said Piron, who noted he'd been "barraged" by media requests concerning this game.
It's the biggest game between these programs since 2006, when Batavia entered Week 9 at 7-1 and dealt previously unbeaten Geneva a 24-6 defeat to create a tie, with Kaneland, for the Western Sun Conference title. The rivals advanced to a Class 6A semifinal meeting, Batavia again winning, 28-0. Geneva has beaten the Bulldogs in the four seasons since.
Neither Piron nor Wicinski say one team holds a definite advantage over the other. St. Charles East has lost to both 35-17 to Geneva, 43-7 to Batavia. Saints coach Mike Fields sees it as a battle of offenses: Geneva's ball control versus Batavia's diverse aerial display.
"If Geneva can do what it likes to do and get those long, sustained drives and eat the clock and keep those Bulldogs off the field, I think Geneva has a good shot," Fields said. "But Geneva's throwing the ball real well, they've got Matt (Williams, quarterback), they scored 54 against (St. Charles) North. I think it's going to be a high-scoring affair."
Wicinski agrees. He thinks it may be a "donnybrook."
Williams, a poised senior headed to Northern Illinois University, has completed 42 of 75 passes (56 percent) for 805 yards and 7 touchdowns to 2 interceptions. He's also run for 207 yards and 2 touchdowns.
The Vikings' top two receivers are Ben Rogers (14 catches, 328 yards, 3 TDs) and Tyler Hickey (12 catches, 257 yards), but all-conference tight end Connor Einck may try to spring a surprise on Batavia's secondary, led by safety Kevin Schroeder and cornerback Jon Gray, who has 5 interceptions.
The Vikings will try to pound the ball with tailback Parker Woodworth, who has run for 661 yards and already 14 touchdowns, but it's a diverse ground game that also features big-play guy Bobby Hess (220 yards rushing) and fullbacks Ben Herrera and Dan Berendt. All told, Geneva has gained 1,332 yards on the ground to 805 through the air.
That's a reversal of Batavia's spread offense under the leadership of three-year starting quarterback Noel Gaspari. The Bulldogs have run for 691 yards only Gaspari, Dom Guzaldo and Alex Moore have more than 20 carries while passing for 1,263.
Gaspari, directed in the offense by his father, retired head coach Mike, has completed 68 of 101 passes (67 percent) for 1,175 yards and 9 touchdowns to only 2 interceptions. Successfully befuddling opponents, of the 13 different Batavia receivers who have caught at least 1 pass, six own touchdown receptions. Zach Strittmatter (19 catches, 328 yards, 2 TDs), Evan Zeddies (16 catches, 284 yards, 3 TDs) and Gray (11 catches, 269 yards, 2 TDs) head the wideouts though, like Geneva, the Bulldogs have a dangerous tight end in 6-foot-6 Cole Gardner.
Geneva and Batavia are Nos. 1-2 in turnover ratio in the area, Geneva plus-9 and Batavia plus-7.
"I would think Rob would feel the same way, we're pretty similar football teams and I think it will be a great game that might hinge on turnovers and valuing each possession you get. Maybe a trick play could turn the tide," said Piron, reflecting on Williams' two onside kicks and fake punt that helped the Vikings beat Wheaton North.
These games often come down to whichever line can impose its will upon the other. Both squads are stacked, Batavia's offensive line headed by left tackle Nick Pappas, Geneva countering with big left tackle Jacob Basin and all-conference right guard Jake Mills.
Defensively, Batavia linemen Alec Lyons, Mack Brown, Marquise Jenkins, Austin Lewis, Mickey Watson and Gardner are a load. In front of active Geneva linebacker Nick Caruso, linemen Drew White, Henry Zupke and Nathan Balettie, hopefully back from injury to rotate in at nose tackle with Jeremy Craig, look to pressure Noel Gaspari.
"That's going to be a heck of a battle," Fields said. "It's going to be one of those typical, whoever wins the line of scrimmage is going to win the game."
Piron believes his boys are relaxed, but the inevitable early energy may have to dissipate before the dogfight ensues.
Wicinski, now very familiar with one of the state's top rivalries, thinks it may be decided in a grueling survival of the fittest.
"The weird thing about this game is because of the rivalry, it's very difficult to play a good game on both sides. Kids' heads are popping off and it's very difficult to execute," he said.
"You almost know you're going to struggle with execution on both sides, both teams, but it's almost like who struggles the least who can get their boys not to make as many mistakes as the other guy."