As Noel Gaspari walked off the field at Bulldog Stadium Saturday for the final time as a player following a 33-22 loss to Prairie Ridge, it was hard to imagine someone who has been through more in his three years of varsity football.
I couldn't help but think back to watching Gaspari and fellow three-year starter Cole Gardner two years ago on the same field following their final game that season, a 23-0 loss to Geneva.
Thinking about how much has changed in the two years.
Dennis Piron is now the coach. Noel Gaspari is lighting up a dynamite defense. And a Batavia community that supports high school athletics like few other towns is back to being fully behind its program.
I waited that night in 2009 for then-coach Mike Gaspari to talk to the two sophomores. The Hall of Fame coach told them there were better days ahead, certainly if they continued to work hard, and that they could lead their class to a much different story than that 2-7 season.
And what a story it turned out to be.
A 12-1 record. Conference champions. State semifinals. Playoff thrillers. First undefeated regular season.
"We worked so hard all the way through," Gardner said Saturday, fighting back tears. "We knew we had to keep working, keep pushing and we'd get there. What a great season. It's hard to realize it now because we're sad we didn't get that last one but we had a great season. You can't ask for a much better season than that.
"It hurts not to be back next week with these guys. It's hard but we'll be all right."
They certainly will. And as much as Saturday's loss stings, in many ways it's nothing compared to what Noel Gaspari has been through.
In that season-ending loss back as a sophomore, Noel completed 5 of 22 passes for 45 yards. While that 2009 Geneva defense could make even the best quarterbacks struggle, the night summed up the frustrations individually for Noel in a year Batavia wasn't often able to move the ball.
Hard to believe it is the same player staring Saturday like he did throughout an All-State senior season. Noel and all the Batavia seniors did put that work in Mike Gaspari wanted. The improvements started during a junior year the Bulldogs returned to the playoffs, then hit heights not seen at Batavia until this fall.
Watching Noel march Batavia up and down the field Saturday to the tune of 28 of 45 passing for 371 yards and 3 touchdowns on a brutal day to throw in the wind, it certainly speaks to someone who has overcome criticism from his own fans and watched his dad face people who wanted him out as coach.
"I faced a lot of adversity, my dad and I," Gaspari said. "People wanted my dad fired. We go to the (2006) state championship, two years later let's have him fired. Then we go back to the playoffs (in 2010), let's have him fired and now we are in the semifinals. It shows how fans are. I was receiving hate mail through Facebook from fans and other players so this feels great (to have a 12-1 season) but it also hurts (coming up a win short of state)."
Gardner and Piron never had a doubt Gaspari was capable of this type of season.
"We knew he was going to be good," Gardner said. "All the people who gave him criticism didn't know and didn't know the potential he had and now he came out and showed it."
"What a leader," Piron said. "What a great, great high school football player, an All-State football player."
As much as Gaspari improved his physical talents the past two years he threw for over 3,100 yards this year with 30 touchdowns and only 7 interceptions he also grew stronger mentally. He didn't have a choice.
"As a sophomore I had a rough year," Gaspari said. "A lot of pepole were being hard on me. Fans and everything. I just fought through it. I have to thank (Aurora Christian coach) Don Beebe a lot, he really worked with me and put me up to where I am today; and my dad for working with this new offense. It's been an awesome year."
Later Saturday, after coaching his Aurora Christian team to a 50-26 victory over Tolono in the 3A semifinals, an otherwise thrilled Beebe let out a sigh when hearing Batavia had lost.
"Noel, I feel bad," Beebe said. "I'm friends with Dennis (Piron), we graduated the same year, ran track and played football together growing up, I've known him for 30-some years. We trained Cole Gardner, Noel, Alec Lyons, (Zach) Strittmatter, (Evan) Zeddies, we trained them all so I really got close to those guys. I predicted at the beginning of the year you guys are going to win the state championship. They got close. I feel bad because Noel is really a great kid and he really developed into a nice, nice quarterback."
A quarterback who grew up on Batavia football.
"As a middle schooler looking forward to it so much, on the sidelines every game in elmentary school," said Gaspari, who is weighing colleges like Butler, Drake, Dayton, North Central, Carthage and Augustana.
"Known all the coaches since I've been born. The last time to get coached by them and it's kind of rough to hear. We just have to move on. We all did a great job getting here. It didn't end like we wanted it to be."
Maybe not, but what a ride it was. There's so much to be proud of, and this is a player and a senior class that all should hold their heads high.