Batavia's 'brothers' savor their state championship dream
DeKALB -- A Batavia football team that lived by the postseason motto "one more week" fully embraced the opportunity to play one more period in Saturday's Class 7A state championship game at Huskie Stadium.
"We got free football," smiling Batavia coach Dennis Piron said after the Bulldogs defeated Lake Zurich 21-14 in overtime for their second state title in four years. "We got more time. I mean, that's what we'd been banking on all along: one more week, one more practice.
"The last 24 hours have been hard, really hard for a lot of us because we knew this thing was coming to an end. So a couple of more minutes? That was a gift. That was a gift, man."
Piron described the handshake between captains before the overtime coin flip as "unbelievable," saying both teams seemed "thrilled to get more time to play with their brothers."
Batavia (13-1) should have been more excited to reach overtime than the Bears. Lake Zurich (13-1) rallied from a 14-0 deficit to tie and had a chance to take a 3-point lead with 1:37 left in the fourth quarter only to see a 35-yard field goal attempt sail wide left.
The Bulldogs insist chemistry, trust and a fraternal bond between players helped them remain levelheaded throughout the late stages of the most important game of their lives. While such intangibles were contributing factors to this team's success, so was the Batavia coaching staff's ability to work a problem until fixed.
Being able to score a touchdown from the 10-yard line might not seem like such a big deal, but it was for the Bulldogs at midseason. They were fortunate to improve to 5-0 on Sept. 22, when they escaped with a 7-0 win over defending Upstate Eight River champion St. Charles East. Batavia came up empty on five red-zone trips in that game, most inside the 10. That simply wasn't good enough.
The Bulldogs have since spent a dozen plays per practice, by Piron's count, running offensive plays from the 10-yard line and in. Perhaps that's why quarterback Riley Cooper looked so calm and cool on the go-ahead 10-yard touchdown pass to fellow senior Tommy Stuttle in overtime. He'd done it before. He also got a little help from upstairs.
"I was talking to coach (offensive coordinator Sean) Anderson on the headset and he said it's going to be open. I just have to be patient," Cooper said. "The offensive line did a great job and Tom did a great job getting open. He made a play at the end of the game when it really counted."
"Lake Zurich didn't cover it bad," Stuttle said. "I just think we ran it really smoothly."
Another coaching move responsible for the Bulldogs winning a championship happened over the summer when coordinator Matt Holm assessed the talent of his incoming defense and decided to change schemes from a four-man front to a three-man front.
The new scheme played better to the strengths of Batavia's personnel. They had the requisite immovable nose guard in Max McFadden and physical ends Ethan Towers and Mike Bautch, the latter of whom Piron once said "looks like a 30-year old man."
The linebacker group of senior Andrew Heinz, junior inside backers Michael Jansey and Luke Weerts and sophomore Quin Urwiler had speed to burn.
Behind that talented front seven was a secondary manned by senior all-staters Stuttle and Michael Niemiec along with senior ballhawk John Golden and hard-hitting junior Nick Conger.
A Batavia defense that avoided major injury all season limited Lake Zurich to 266 total yards and held 1,100-yard rusher Joey Stutzman to 48 yards rushing on 17 carries.
After allowing 35 points in the regular-season finale at St. Charles North, their only loss, the Bulldogs limited five playoff opponents to 7, 17, 10, 13 and 14 points, respectively.
"Our defense is sensational," Piron said. "Has been all year long. Has been, I think, one of the best if not the best defense in the state of Illinois. You've got Michael Jansey here (at the postgame news conference) but you could have eight other guys who play hard sideline to sideline and don't give an inch. They hit you, they whack you and you've got to earn everything that you get. Really, just an incredible job by our group and coach (Matt) Holm."
For Batavia players on both sides of the ball, winning the state title was the fruition of a dream, one many of these Bulldogs shared since they sat together at Huskie Stadium as eighth graders in 2013 and watched Batavia win its first state title.
"I was sitting with them, watching Micah Coffey play, who was a great influence," Cooper said. "We've been talking about this since we've been playing football together. We've all been together for so long and we've built such a brotherhood, such a chemistry. We knew how we needed to end it."
Batavia's band of brothers ended it as state champions.
They don't get any more weeks together as a team, but the memory of their 14-week journey as brothers will last a lifetime.