ST. CHARLES – Geneva football coach Rob Wicinski patted his Vikings players on the helmet as they slowly made their way toward the bus after Friday night’s game.
It had more of an end-of-the-season feel than is customary for a Week 6 game – with good reason. After East’s 34-27 win against the Vikings, Geneva has three games still on the slate, but the Vikings’ playoff dreams are toast.
For East, it was a major triumph that puts the Saints squarely in a two-team race with Batavia for the Upstate Eight Conference River title.
For Geneva, the season isn’t technically done, but an era is.
The Vikings’ eight-year streak of making the playoffs is over. As slick as that streak looks on Wicinski’s coaching resume, those brief heart-to-hearts with his dejected players showed ego is low on Wicinski’s priority list.
“That doesn’t mean nothing to me, the playoff streak, it really doesn’t,” Wicinski said. “I just want the kids to play their best football, really stay healthy and have a great experience. I never got in this for the wins and losses. [Shoot], if you get into coaching for wins and losses, you’ll drive yourself nuts.
“I coached three sports for 15 years and I didn’t get into any of this stuff to do that. I got into it for the relationship with the kids, and this is unbelievable growth that I’ve seen out of some kids that were questionable. We’ve struggled of late making good choices when we need to make good choices, so hopefully they’ll learn and continue to make good choices.”
Much has been written about the close relationship between Wicinski and East coach Mike Fields, who spent a decade with Wicinski at Geneva before leaving to take over his own program at East four years back.
Knocking his old program out of playoff contention had the potential to turn Friday’s win a tinge bittersweet, but Fields dismissed that notion, saying “it is what it is.”
“That’s what we tell our kids every week – don’t focus on what they’re going to do and what’s at stake for them, focus on what’s at stake for us,” Fields said.
Fields’ Saints are well on their way to returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2009, his first season at East. At 4-2 and with a rumble against Batavia serving as the lone remaining game in which the Saints will be an underdog, East is on the upswing, a dynamic Wicinski could appreciate, even at his own program’s expense.
“Give credit to coach Fields,” Wicinski said. “He’s had a lot of pain over there so that’s good if I can give him a little joy.”
Losing seasons in 2010 and 2011 surely make a bounce-back 2012 all the sweeter for Fields and players like senior Joe Hoscheit, a three-year varsity standout for the Saints.
Fields likened the struggles in establishing his program at East to the early stages of Wicinski’s tenure at Geneva, which weren’t pretty.
“It’s a process,” Fields said. “I learned that moreso at Geneva than anything. I have all the respect in the world for Rob. I learned so much from him and being around him and going through what we did there, all the trials and tribulations. You know, 0-9 and 1-8 and 1-8. Building that program up, and to come over here and be a part of this. ... To get that consistently every year is tough.”
Geneva’s postseason streak was the longest in the area aside from Aurora Christian’s. It was no run-of-the-mill eight-year postseason streak – if there is such a thing – but rather one that included a state championship game appearance, three berths in a state semifinal and four trips to a state quarterfinal.
The Vikings, though, have shown they are not immune to the dreaded cycles of high school sports. They haven’t made it beyond the second round of the playoffs since their 7A state runners-up finish in 2008, and now know there will be no happy ending this season, even if they run the table the rest of the way – of which they’re highly capable.
Thirteen seconds into Friday’s game, Geneva had more points on the board than it did in all of last week’s woeful performance against St. Charles North.
Bobby Hess’ opening kickoff return for a touchdown provided an early signal that there would be plenty of theatrics Friday, and the zaniness was only beginning. A pick-6 touchdown for East and three touchdown plays of 40 or more yards followed in the opening half as Geneva led 21-14 at the break.
But the Saints surged in the second half, largely thanks to winning a special teams battle that started so promisingly for Geneva. And East finished Geneva off by playing the type of smashmouth football in the fourth quarter that has been the hallmark of a brilliant decade of football at Geneva.
By night’s end, the Vikings were forced to shuffle to the parking lot, hurting emotionally more than physically. Hess, Geneva’s outstanding tailback, had a head start on the limping during the second half.
“I told him to stop cramping,” Wicinski quipped. “He didn’t listen.”
Even for a coach of Wicinski’s caliber, a year comes along when there are no magic words, and pats on the helmet have to suffice.
• Jay Schwab is sports editor of the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.