Serving 11 seasons as an assistant at Naperville Central, Chris VanDyke has experienced many big games before. Friday will be his first, though, as head coach at Immaculate Conception.
IC (5-1, 3-0 Suburban Christian Gold) battles Aurora Christian on the Knights' homecoming at Plunkett Field in Elmhurst. The visiting Eagles are likewise 3-0 in the Gold, making this IC's chance for its first conference title since a three-way tie with Driscoll and Montini in the 2002 Suburban Catholic Conference.
"It's not my first time experiencing success, but with this team, with me being the head coach, it's really exciting," VanDyke said. "I told the players it's going to be a big game, and they get to play it."
And VanDyke gets to match wits against Aurora Christian coach Don Beebe and Western Michigan-bound quarterback Anthony Maddie, whose spread offense and plethora of weapons will surely test Knights cornerbacks Patrick Kirby, Nick Mrugacz and Cody Baker, and safeties Charlie Pulkowski and Adam Muellers. Maddie has passed for a staggering 1,601 yards and 24 touchdowns.
IC quarterback Demetrius Carr is no slouch. The junior has run for 478 yards and 5 touchdowns and passed for 682 yards and 8 touchdowns in five games, one win being a lightning-canceled forfeit.
Figuring Aurora Christian will want to force the pass, VanDyke would like to put the game in the hands of his sound offensive line of Sean Fenton, Adalberto Suarez, James Peachey, Brendan Flaherty and Pat Skrodzki and hope that backs Dan Vatch, Matt Mesnard and Danny D'Angelo can find daylight.
"I think it's going to come down to which line is better. At least that's what we hope," VanDyke said.
"It might come down to if we can hold onto the ball longer than them or whoever has the ball last."
A week after throwing for 230 yards against West Chicago, Naperville North rushed for 373 yards last Friday against Glenbard East.
The Huskies (4-2, 3-1 DuPage Valley Conference), who spent the first few weeks of the season trying to find their identity on offense, have worked their way into a pretty potent combination.
While 96 points and more than 800 yards of total offense the last two weeks were impressive, what coach Sean Drendel especially liked was his team's ability to achieve those numbers with a different offensive focus each week.
"We're figuring out who we are," Drendel said. "There are so many things you can do in a spread offense, I think we're just starting to reach our potential."
At the heart of the offense is a physical group of linemen led by David Meyerhoff and Colin Goebel. Quarterback Tyler Gehr, a converted defensive player, has quietly developed into a threat to run or pass.
In the West Chicago game Gehr completed 13 of 15 passes for 230 yards and 2 touchdowns. Matt Stacho had 7 catches for 165 yards. Last week he rushed for 83 yards, adding to a 100-yard effort from running back Dan Puknaitis and a 2-touchdown performance from Kendall Veluvolu.
With tough DVC games coming against West Aurora, Naperville Central and Glenbard North, the Huskies' offensive balance couldn't have arrived at a better time.
"We've gotten a lot better offensively," Drendel said. "We're starting to do a nice job on that side of the ball."
Despite a season-long struggle for Willowbrook (0-6, 0-3 West Suburban Gold), Dom Battaglia hasn't lost any of his competitive edge.
The 5-foot-9, 190-pound junior has done a bit of everything for the Warriors this season, and two weeks ago he added quarterback to his resume.
"He's not a natural quarterback, but he's a leader," said Willowbrook coach Nick Hildreth. "Right now he gives us the best opportunity to be successful."
Already this season, Battaglia has played running back, linebacker, wide receiver and safety. He's also returned kicks and punts.
Although his play on defense has been limited this season compared to his sophomore year on varsity, it still seems like Battaglia's everywhere for the Warriors. He leads the team with 331 rushing yards and 225 receiving yards, and he's scored a total of 5 touchdowns. At quarterback, a position he's still learning, he's thrown for 236 yards, 2 touchdowns and 2 interceptions.
"Anything I ask of him out there, he's willing to do," Hildreth said. "If it involves competing, he's up for it."
The line on Naperville Central:
Naperville Central (4-2, 3-1) has rushed for 1,147 yards this season, including 826 yards by running back Matt Randolph. The Redhawks' senior-laden, physical offensive line is a major reason for that success.
Even though the line is looked at as a unit, Naperville Central coach Mike Stine notes the individual strengths of each player.
Right tackle Sean Goldner entered the season as the line's lone returning starter. Right guard Mike Keller, the team's strongest lineman, gained tremendous athleticism in the off-season by dropping from 325 to 275 pounds.
Center Matt Binkowski is undersized at 6-foot, 200 pounds, but he might be the unit's most fundamentally sound player. Left guard Dan Teich is one of the team's strongest linemen, but he's also one of the fastest. Finally, left tackle Nick Feliciano is known for consistently grading out as the best of the linemen.
"Our five guys up front have been very solid," Stine said. "Having five seniors there, we planned on that being a strength for us."
Little big man:
Wheaton Academy (1-5, 0-3 Suburban Christian Gold) lost 24-6 to Marmion last week, but a nugget out of that game was the play of Warriors nose tackle John Gemmel.
A 5-foot-8, 160-pound sophomore, Gemmel swam past Marmion's larger interior linemen to record 5.5 tackles for loss.
Warriors coach Ben Wilson has seen that type of play before from a quick, strong, undersized nose tackle last season at Wheaton Warrenville South.
"He's a Sparty Chino type," Wilson said, comparing Gemmel to WW South's state championship nose tackle.
Ready for anything:
In a roundabout way maybe it was advantageous for Montini that quarterback John Rhode missed the first five games with a broken thumb, which required backup Mark Gorogianis and as well as receiver Joey Borsellino to take turns behind center.
Opponents must be ready for just about anything against Montini (4-2, 2-1 Suburban Christian Blue).
After Gorogianis went 9-of-10 passing with a touchdown against St. Francis, a nervous Rhode entered after halftime to complete 11 of 14 passes with 3 touchdowns.
"Our pass offense really looks good," said Broncos coach Chris Andriano.
Montini also ran some "Joecat" Borsellino in the Wildcat formation, and there will be more of that to come. Aside from lending a second back to Dmitri Taylor, passing plays out of "Joecat" have yet to be revealed.
Despite Borsellino's versatility and Gorogianis' abilities, Rhode is the No. 1 quarterback.
"It's just his whole demeanor. He is so poised. He has such an intuitive quality about him, throwing the ball and finding open receivers. He's just so good at reading defenses," Andriano said.
Still, one never knows what offensive coordinator Lewis Borsellino could spring next.
"We've really gotten to the point now where no matter what happens, we're ready," Andriano said.
The battle of Indian Prairie:
With the big District 204 showdown between Neuqua Valley and Waubonsie Valley coming Friday at North Central College, its meaning to Neuqua coach Bryan Wells sounds somewhat surprising.
"Probably not a lot to me personally, honestly," said Wells, whose Wildcats are 5-1, 3-0 in the Upstate Eight Conference Valley division, hoping to ward off Waubonsie (5-1, 2-1).
"It's always great to win this game, but I don't know that I feel that differently than anybody else on our team," Wells said. "I think one of the things that with the two teams being as good as they are, having the opportunity to play a very good football team is exciting and the fact that it's Waubonsie Valley makes it doubly exciting."
Wells owns the upper hand in this rivalry, a 9-3 advantage over the Warriors.
"Waubonsie Valley has been on the short end of the stick in terms of victories," said Warriors coach Paul Murphy, who last won the game in 2008, 28-26. "We've got to find a way to turn that around. It's about playing to the best of your ability, and unfortunately we haven't done that the last few years."
Should the Warriors achieve that, then Neuqua goes on to beat Bartlett next week, there stands to be a three-way tie for the conference title.
Seven of the 12 meetings have been decided by more than 10 points three close games in the first three years with Neuqua winning 63-21 in 2004. Last season Neuqua came in with the better record to defeat the Warriors 43-6.
That was then, and this is now.
"We expect a close game going into this game every year," Wells said, "and we've had the opportunity a couple different times to get leads on them and things went well from there. But I expect this to be close just like every other year."