Upstate Eight, as we know it, going out with a bang
The final Friday night of Upstate Eight Conference football in its current configuration could go down as one of the most memorable in league history.
Four schools -- Batavia, Geneva, St. Charles East and St. Charles North -- play their final games as UEC members Friday. Next season they join current DuPage Valley Conference members Glenbard North, Lake Park, Wheaton-Warrenville South and Wheaton North in the new DuKane Conference
Meanwhile, Glenbard South joins the UEC in 2017-18 to form a revamped, 10-team Upstate Eight without divisions.
But that's next year. There's still plenty to iron out in Week 9.
Can injury riddled Geneva (4-4) find a way to knock off now-healthy West Aurora (6-2) in a crossover for a necessary fifth win to become playoff eligible?
Can Larkin reclaim the Town Jug from Elgin, which snapped a long losing streak against the Royals in last year's season finale? Or will Kindrel "Nomo" Morris run roughshod over the Maroons like he did two seasons ago when, as a sophomore, he came off the bench and dominated with the zone read?
One question looms over all others: Who wins Friday's de facto UEC River championship game between Batavia (8-0, 5-0) and host St. Charles North (7-1, 5-0)?
"I think it's the right way to go out. It's like a perfect storm of how this conference is ending," St. Charles North coach Rob Pomazak said. "Normally, the conference is buttoned up by this point. Now you've got, in my opinion, two very good football teams that are both playing for a conference championship in the final week of the season. We're super excited. How much more fun does it get?"
Batavia at St. Charles North
The Bulldogs are chasing their sixth UEC River title in seven years, while the North Stars hope to claim their first UEC title since 2004, when they shared the crown with Neuqua Valley.
"As coaches you are always grateful when your kids play at such a high level and give an opportunity to take part in a game like this," Batavia coach Dennis Piron said. "Our kids have put a lot of effort into making this season special."
Batavia for years was known as an offensive powerhouse. While its offense has performed at a consistent level this season, these Bulldogs are a defensive-minded team that tries to limit turnovers, control the clock and limit offensive opportunities for the opponent.
Batavia has outscored eight opponents by an average score of 33-4 and has allowed just 31 points and 298 rushing yards all season.
It starts with senior down linemen Mike Bautch and Max McFadden and junior Ethan Towers, a trio with 13.5 sacks and 33 tackles for loss between them.
Next is a slew of talented linebackers, including junior inside linebackers Luke Weerts (6-foot-2, 230 pounds) and Michael Jansey (6-2, 210), a pair Larkin coach Dragan Teonic this week called "two future Division-I players." Both make appearances on offense in goal line packages. Weerts leads the team with 69 total tackles, 55 solo, while Jansey has 55.
Senior cornerback Tom Stuttle leads the team with 6 interceptions and senior safety Michael Niemiec notched 11 of his 58 tackles last week against Larkin.
"I think you have to take what they're giving you," Pomazak said of the Batavia defense. "They went to an odd front and they're playing to their strengths now. They have real talented linebackers with great speed. You have to be able to handle the pressure they're going to put on and distribute the football evenly to the athletes that are open and there for you."
That job falls to St. Charles North quarterback Michael Hohensee, a 62-percent passer who has thrown successfully to 10 different teammates. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound senior has completed 86 of 139 attempts for 1,513 yards and 16 touchdowns with 4 interceptions.
Hohensee's top target is versatile senior running back Lucas Segobiano, who has 33 catches for 572 yards and 7 touchdowns to go with his 667 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns. He can also connect with 6-2 receiver Tyler Nubin. The junior has 26 receptions for 474 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Offensively, balanced Batavia has rushed for 1,552 yards and thrown for 1,300. Senior quarterback Riley Cooper is a 74-percent passer (88 of 119) who has thrown for 1,207 yards and 13 touchdowns with 5 interceptions.
St. Charles North counters with a defense that has limited opponents to 13.5 points per game. The North Stars have taken the ball away 15 times. Batavia's offense has committed 10 turnovers.
"We need to just play a good football game and not make mistakes," Piron said. "Turnovers will be a big key. We can't throw interceptions or fumble the ball away and give their offense extra opportunities. Our defense will give us opportunities to get the ball back, but we don't want to put our defense in bad spots."
Elgin vs. Larkin
The annual battle for the Town Jug doesn't hold conference title or playoff implications for Larkin (3-5, 1-4) or Elgin (2-6, 1-4), but fans would be hard pressed to tell based on the intensity with which this game is played historically.
Last year, Larkin's Kindrel "Nomo" Morris rushed for 161 yards on 34 carries but Elgin forced 6 turnovers, including one in overtime, to snap an 18-game losing streak. The loss kept Larkin from reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
The Maroons again have to deal with Morris (5-8, 150), who has rushed 154 times for 1,132 yards and 8 touchdowns. As a sophomore, he entered the Town Jug game due to an injury and carried 12 times in the fourth quarter for 155 yards to lift Larkin to a 27-13 win.
"He beat us two years ago with that zone read and last year we had a little better handle on him." Elgin coach Anthony Mason said. "Ain't not stopping him, though. He's athletic. He's good. It's just a matter of making sure you know where he's at and what plays they like to run for him. Just keep an eye on him and try to contain him. We feel if we do everything in our power and handle our business and execute, we can come out with the victory."
The Maroons counter with running back Dae'Vion Arthur, quarterback Kristian Flowers, athletic sophomores Brandon Bridges and Xavier Bonds and wide receiver/defensive lineman Roy Panthier (6-3, 205).
"I'm worried about Elgin's athleticism," fourth-year Larkin coach Dragan Teonic said. "They are talented, maybe more so than a lot of teams we've faced. Their record doesn't show it but, man, they've got guys everywhere. They run jet sweeps and bubble screens and throw the ball up to their wide receivers on the hash marks. And the kids we have covering are not 6-4."
The Town Jug has changed hands each of the last four seasons and the rivals have split their last eight meetings. The Royals lead the all-time series 33-21.
"We want the Jug and we want to finish with a win at 4-5," Teonic said. "We're playing better football so let's see if we can finish it out."
West Aurora at Geneva
A trip to the playoffs depends on the outcome for Geneva, which must win to become eligible after missing the postseason last year.
It won't be easy against West Aurora, which is finally healthy after battling injuries for several weeks. Four starters returned to the lineup last week: two-way starter Dylan Bernal (6-2, 180), guard Eddie Fowler, cornerback Malik Strickland and Camron Donatlan, one of the state's best athletes.
Strickland was a starting cornerback last year when the Blackhawks went 9-1. He played his first game of the season last week in West Aurora's 56-14 win over Bartlett.
Donatlan, the reigning Class 3A high jump state champion, returned from a three-week injury hiatus in a new role. Formerly a wide receiver, he was switched to running back. Though he had only one formal practice at the position, the natural athlete carried the ball 9 times for 206 yards and 4 touchdowns.
"One of my philosophies is when you have a special athlete, it's a lot easier to put the ball in their belly rather than throw it to him," West Aurora coach Nate Eimer said. "Plus, he's wearing a little bandage, a pad, on his hand so it's probably easier to run the ball than to high point a catch. One practice. I mean, he's just a special athlete. We're lucky to have him."
Geneva is experiencing the opposite end of the health spectrum. Though running back Lavonte Jones returned from injury last week and broke free for a 73-yard touchdown run, the Viking offense has been decimated by injuries to multiple running backs and wide receivers and the defense has been vulnerable to the big play.
Defeating a healthy West Aurora squad to make the playoffs won't be an easy task for the Vikings.
"I'm really proud of Nate and the way he's handled his stuff and built his program up," Geneva 19th-year coach Rob Wicinski said. "This might be the best team we've faced outside of Batavia. Off tape I've seen, I think they could probably beat (St. Charles) East and North. They have skills that blow just about every Tri-Cities team away. They have three almost-300-pounders up front and they have size and speed.
"I've followed them since the beginning of the year and watched their progress on film. When you're 6-2 and building like that, you've got swag and momentum. It's going to be a real difficult task for us All our big-play guys are gone but maybe we can muster something up."