Geneva junior Michael Ratay made a triumphant return from last year's ankle injury, leading the area with 34 touchdowns and leading Geneva to a record-tying 11 wins.
Rick West | Staff Photographer
Sibling rivalry. Anything you can do, I'll do better.
You know how brothers can be. They might love each other, but they'll also do anything they can to top what their sibling accomplished.
Sometimes it can even hurt their relationship. The younger one follows the older one in school and winds up resenting being compared to him. Or the older one grows bitter that the younger is the favorite.
And then there's the complete opposite.
Then there's Michael and Shaun Ratay.
Shaun is the older brother, the one who graduated from Geneva last year after quarterbacking the Vikings for two outstanding seasons.
Michael is the younger brother, the junior running back who led the area and set school records in rushing yards and touchdowns on his way to being named the Captain of the Daily Herald Tri-Cities All-Area Football Team.
And you think Shaun might have a twinge of regret? The type of brother who gets jealous about the success his sibling enjoyed?
Not a chance.
When given a chance to write about himself in a senior essay at the end of last year, this is what Shaun wrote:
There is nothing in the world that makes me happier and prouder than watching Michael play football.
In fact, Shaun's teammates at Northern Illinois this fall got tired of hearing him go on and on about his younger brother.
"I always brag about him," Shaun said. "At NIU they would tease me about it. Michael would scored 6 touchdowns or whatever, and they'd say, 'Don't you wish that was you,' or, 'Don't you get mad?' and I'd always say, 'No way.' I'd rather it be him. If we do anything to be successful I'd rather it be him than me. I always get more enjoyment from seeing him do well than myself doing well."
A lot to be proud about
Shaun returned for every Geneva game this year, and was on the Vikings' sideline cheering all of Michael's highlight-reel runs.
And what a show the younger Ratay put on in becoming the first junior to win captain since Aurora Christian quarterback Nate Peterson in 2003.
Ratay's 1,730 rushing yards and 34 touchdowns are both believed to be school records at Geneva. He was his best in the biggest games, running for 310 yards and 5 against Bradley-Bourbonnais in the opening round of the Class 7A playoffs, following with 3 touchdowns and 134 yards against St. Charles East before rushing for 145 yards and accounting for all 4 Geneva touchdowns at East St. Louis.
Who was one of the first people to high-five Ratay when he came to the sideline to celebrate those scores?
Who else but Shaun.
"We're really good friends," Michael said. "We love to see each other to do good. Shaun loves coming out to see me play, and I love seeing him play.
"He's great. He's never negative or anything like that. He's always a confidence booster."
"Shaun's probably Michael's biggest fan," Geneva senior tight end Colin McCaffrey said.
That relationship has seen the highs and lows football -- and life -- can bring. There's the obvious high of this year's 11-1 record, which came on the heels of last year's 11-2 record with Shaun as the quarterback.
But there was an even lower low last year, a season-ending ankle injury Michael Ratay suffered that robbed the two of a chance to play in the same backfield together.
In that senior essay, Shaun wrote: I don't think I've ever been more disappointed and upset about something in my entire life.
"Last year after he got hurt, it was really hard for my mom and I tried to act like didn't bother me that much because it was hard for her and him. But I was really disappointed," Shaun said. "Everything happens for a reason."
"They are very tight," Geneva coach Rob Wicinski said. "It was unfortunate they weren't able to play a year together, for that to happen."
Back and better than ever
If there were any doubts whether Michael Ratay would be the same runner after the injury, he put them to rest with his record-setting year. After tweaking his other ankle early in the season, Ratay played at less than 100 percent until about week seven against Rochelle.
When he was finally at 100 percent, Ratay was pretty much unstoppable. Starting in Week 7 when Geneva started its toughest stretch of Western Sun Conference play against the Hubs and including their three playoff wins, Ratay ran for 1,123 yards (187 a game) and scored 18 touchdowns in the Vikings' six biggest games of the year.
When Geneva's line opened up holes, Ratay darted through them for big gains. When there wasn't quite as much room, Ratay still seemed to squeeze through and find daylight, then make a spin move or cutback to run for more yards.
"He had an awesome season," McCaffrey said. "Sometimes the O-line didn't make blocks, and he makes us look good. He's not into personal stats, he's a team guy for sure. He's the first guy to thank his O-linemen. He's real fun to watch and block for."
Ratay was always quick to return the credit to linemen like Eric Strauss and Taylor Reed, and his coaches.
"Coach gave me a great opportunity," Ratay said. "If those guys (linemen) weren't out there, I would be nowhere. I've got to be thankful. It wasn't bad having other threats, Joe (Augustine), Colin (McCaffrey), our fullbacks. They couldn't just key on one guy. I was in a great situation to do good things."
Wicinski said the biggest improvement Ratay made this year was in his blocking. He said Ratay is one of the most versatile players he's coached, and the Vikings toyed with sets that had Ratay quarterbacking or getting direct snaps because of how well Ratay can throw.
He showed that in the loss to East St. Louis tossing a 15-yard touchdown pass. He also ran for 2 scores in that game and caught a 49-yard score.
It's easy to see why Wicinski did everything he could to get the ball in Ratay's hands. He said Ratay improved throughout the year in hitting the holes quicker.
"He really gets downhill," Wicinski said. "Sometimes the young pups, they will double cut and triple cut. Our blocking schemes aren't designed for that. You make one initial cut and go. With a player like him, we wanted to do everything we could to get him the ball every way we could."
Only loses in Madden
It's pretty common to hear of football players who hate to lose.
Now meet one who doesn't lose -- almost ever.
It wasn't until Geneva lost in the Class 7A quarterfinals at East St. Louis that Ratay lost his first high school football game.
And that came after years of winning undefeated championships with his Tri-City Chargers youth football teams and a perfect record on the sophomore team when he was a freshman.
If you want to beat Ratay on the football field, you better make sure it is Madden 2007.
How serious of a player is Ratay? After his Chargers beat McCaffrey's Steelers to win a tournament at Wild Wings, the two good friends didn't talk for a day.
"He thinks he's better," McCaffrey said. "But I have a better record."
After averaging 8.5 points and an area-best 2.4 steals a game as a sophomore, Ratay didn't go out for basketball this winter.
Lest you think he'll use all that free time to beat his friends at Madden, Ratay wants to use the winter to train at speed camps and lift weights in hopes of bettering his chances of playing college football.
Standing 5-foot-9, he won't wow college scouts with his size and might need another year with even bigger numbers to attract schools.
Which is certainly possible, according to his coach who said Ratay runs about a 4.7 or 4.8 40.
"I still believe there's a lot for him to learn and a lot of upside," Wicinski said. "He can get better, and it's not what other teams want to hear. He made great strides through the entire year as far as doing what need to do. He's very coachable, a very good student of the game. I'm looking for better and better things, the natural progression, get stronger and faster."
Until he transferred from NIU this fall, Shaun Ratay saw first hand what Division I football was like.
"Getting to see what it's all about, I know he could compete at that level," Shaun Ratay said. "It's just someone giving him a chance, like (last year's All-Area Captain) Boone (Thorgesen). He's shorter. He's just got to perform at a level coaches don't have a choice but take him."
Geneva's climb continues
Ratay is part of an amazing turnaround at Geneva. A program that once won big under Jerry Auchstetter had fallen into a 4-32 hole in the previous four seasons before Wicinski took over in 1999.
The losses continued in Wicinski's first four years -- a combined 5-31 -- before a breakthrough 5-4 record in 2003.
As a kid, Ratay went to those games during the 9-wins-in-8-year stretch, riding with senior backup quarterback Steve Diemand's father.
It means that much more to Ratay to now be part of a program that is 40-9 the last four years, including 22-3 the last two.
"It's a great community," Ratay said. "A lot of people come out and show support for us. When the crowd sang the fight song for us (after East St. Louis loss), that meant a lot.
"I was always hoping we would be a good team. After (2003-04 quarterback) Alex (Pokorny) came through, that senior class, the junior class, they did great. I knew the program was turning around."
Turning around, and now there's no looking back. The future looks bright, with this year's juniors who helped tie a school record with an 11-1 record being joined by freshman and sophomore teams that both went 9-0.
There will be another year for Ratay to run wild with all that talent around him.
And you know who will be his biggest fan.
"Me getting to watch all his games this year was just really special," Shaun said. "I'm so proud of him. We're just like best friends. He's my best friend."p class="factboxheadblack">Past captains
1997: Kyle Schrader, Kaneland
1998: Eric Delaney, Kaneland
1999: George Springer, St. Charles
2000: Brian Kinane, Batavia
2001: Dave Nagel, Batavia
2002: Brent Harner, Kaneland
2003: Nate Peterson, Aurora Christian
2004: Alex Pokorny, Geneva
2005: John Brown, St. Charles East
2006: Boone Thorgesen, Kaneland
2007: Michael Ratay, Geneva