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Huskies ripe with Tri-Cities ties entering Orange Bowl

Northern Illinois linebacker Michael Santacaterina participates in a drill during practice at Huskie Stadium last month. Santacaterina is one of two Geneva alumni on the Orange Bowl-bound Huskies, who boast three other players with Tri-Cities ties.
Northern Illinois linebacker Michael Santacaterina participates in a drill during practice at Huskie Stadium last month. Santacaterina is one of two Geneva alumni on the Orange Bowl-bound Huskies, who boast three other players with Tri-Cities ties.

DeKALB – Northern Illinois special teamer Bobby Winkel played at Huskie Stadium three times before entering college, all as a budding prospect for the Tri-City Chargers.

His teams went 2-1 in league championship games at NIU. The heavyweight eighth-grade team that also included Huskies linebacker Michael Santacaterina did not qualify.

Stalking the stadium turf is much less of a novelty these days for NIU’s Tri-Cities connection, which also includes left tackle Ryan Brown, emergency quarterback Matt Williams and reserve fullback Jess Striedl. Sharing a huddle with grown youth football teammates, however, doesn’t seem to get old. If you’re going to represent your area code, why not a place like Miami for tonight’s Orange Bowl against Florida State?

“We always mess around, we always say half the team’s from the 630 even though it’s not quite that much,” said Winkel, a Marmion alumnus from Batavia. “We always surprise people when we say we’re all from the same towns. It’s nice having guys you grew up with and knew when you were little, playing with them. That’s always nice, because I can call any of them up, and I know they’ve got my back for anything I need. Same with our families.”

Along with Winkel, Brown (St. Charles North), Santacaterina (Geneva), and Striedl (St. Charles East) are redshirt sophomores who graduated high school in 2010.

Williams graduated from Geneva two years later and has redshirted his freshman season. He was Santacaterina’s high school teammate as a sophomore, and was aware of Brown, Striedl and Winkel as top area talent at the time.

“The connection that we have, being so close to home, and the pipeline that we can continue to make is just awesome,” Williams said.

Speaking with the Chronicle before the Huskies’ Bowl appearance against Arkansas State last season, then-senior linebacker Pat Schiller also used “pipeline” to describe the program’s Fox Valley connection. While he’s glad to re-route it to the Tri-Cities, Schiller specifically was referring to his alma mater, Geneva.

NIU’s 2011 team featured a trio of former Vikings, branded by the school’s public relations staff as “The Geneva Three.” Santacaterina is the only one remaining.

Schiller is now a practice squad linebacker with the Atlanta Falcons. Defensive tackle Frank Boenzi, another member of the high school Class of 2010, was dismissed from the team during the summer after facing a pair of Class A misdemeanor charges related to possessing and attempting to manufacture or deliver marijuana in DeKalb County.

Longtime Geneva coach Rob Wicinski planned to travel to Miami for tonight’s game, one of thousands of former NIU players or alumni expected in South Beach.

A tight end for the Huskies’ 1983 California Bowl champions, Wicinski rarely mentioned his college career to Geneva players. In attempts to contact him for an interview for this story, he followed suit, writing “must be some slow news these days” in an email.

“He’s not one to brag a whole lot about stuff,” Santacaterina said. “He never really was like, ‘NIU this or that,’ but he’s got pride.”

Before the season, Kane County Chronicle Football Player of the Year Brandon Mayes verbally committed to NIU for 2013. He’ll be joined by fellow Aurora Christian seniors Chad Beebe and Joel Bouagnon, a Burlington Central transfer living in Batavia.

Striedl called NIU “like a hometown team” to the region, further adding credibility to the “pipeline” movement.

As for the Chargers, there’s no such tagline about channeling program alums to BCS bowls on the Tri-City Youth Football Association website.

For the moment, it works the other way around.

“It’s cool going back and seeing all the Tri-City stuff going on,” Santacaterina said. “My little brother [Daniel] played there, too. My dad [Mike] was a coach. It’s great to go back and just see where things have gotten.”

At NIU, officials hope the Orange Bowl is a similar launching point. If Winkel and Co. can grace Miami’s Sun Life Stadium again after tonight, they’d be elated.

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