Rick Westfirstname.lastname@example.org Batavia's Anthony Thielk breaks a big run against Notre Dame during Friday's playoff action in Batavia.
Rick West | Staff Photographer
At this point of the football season, Batavia coach Dennis Piron said, "it's about friendships, relationships."
Batavia elected not to let those on-field relationships end last week, scoring 28 unanswered second-half points to rally past Notre Dame 35-28 in the 10-0, top-seeded Bulldogs' first-round Class 6A playoff game.
The comeback meant they'll return as a unit again, 1 p.m. Saturday on their home turf against No. 8 Lake Forest (8-2).
"The theme for me is live to play another week," Piron said. "The word we've been throwing around is love. That's it. Just take care of each other and we can keep going."
Tight end Cole Gardner did much of the taking care of with 3 touchdowns out of his 6 receptions, for 110 tackler-dragging yards. When called upon to block he was happy to join all-Upstate Eight River linemen Brock Batka, Zack Schoettes and Nick Pappas in caving in his side of the line.
It was Gardner's greatest impact this season from an offensive standpoint. Also impressing Lake Forest's scouts was quarterback Noel Gaspari, who completed 21 of 35 passes for 293 yards and 4 touchdowns without an interception. On the season the three-year starter has completed 135 of 192 passes (70 percent) for 2,354 yards, 24 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.
"We have to have other players on our team step up and that's been the case the whole year because I'm sure (Gardner) will be a focal point of their strategy," Piron said.
Yes, it has been the case. Any number of Bulldogs has proved capable of matching Gardner's touchdown total of last week. Nine players Gardner, Michael Moffatt, Jon Gray, Evan Zeddies, Alex Moore, Anthony Thielk, Zach Strittmatter, battering ram Alec Lyons and touchdown leader Dom Guzaldo have ranged from 3 to 11 touchdowns on the season.
Lake Forest's defense, a 3- and 4-man front that favors the blitz, features 6-foot-2, 265-pound tackle Tyler Funk, leading tackler 6-2, 220 Brandt Pfeifer at linebacker and safety Dominic Keefe, who coach Chuck Spagnoli called the Scouts' most consistent defensive player.
"We're going to have to force them to drive the ball the length of the field," said Spagnoli, whose Scouts clocked Fenton 55-20 in their first-round game.
Lake Forest, which lost to Stevenson and Buffalo Grove while earning a share of the North Suburban Conference Lake Division for the first time since 1995, is less diverse offensively.
Owen Williams, a 6-foot, 210-pound senior, comprises about 60 percent of the Scouts offense from what Piron has seen on film. He ran for 126 yards last week against Fenton, and also is a receiving threat out of the backfield.
"When he's successful our team offensively becomes successful," said Spagnoli, head coach at DeLaSalle and an assistant at Carthage College and the University of Evansville before coming to Lake Forest nine seasons ago.
Luke Bernardi is Lake Forest's top receiver, a 5-foot-10, 175-pound senior. Quarterback Jordan Beck went 10-of-24 for 124 yards passing against Fenton, returning from an elbow injury. Beck directs a Pro-style offense which attempts about a 50-50 balance between the run and pass.
"I think the key will be on offense, can we take advantage of their blitzing and somehow use it to get some big plays," Piron said. "And defending them, we have to stop the running back and have to contain their quarterback. He hasn't run too much lately but he's very capable. But we cannot let him be comfortable when he's throwing the football."
Batavia didn't look too comfortable when turning the ball over and allowing Notre Dame a 28-7 first-half lead. Composure reigned, however, to further solidify their friendships.
"Every time you win you get to extend your season another week," Piron said. "These boys, they've been playing together since kindergarten. Their experience on the field has to mirror that."