Since the Upstate Eight Conference River came to be in 2010, there has yet to be a football season in which Batavia, Geneva, St. Charles East and St. Charles North qualified for the playoffs in the same year.
All four programs made the playoffs in four of the five seasons before that, begging the question – how realistic is it for shared, Tri-Cities prosperity in the UEC River era?
As the conference season opens tonight with the Batavia-Geneva and St. Charles East-St. Charles North rivalry showdowns, this season could serve as a revealing test case considering all four teams have showed signs of being playoff-caliber during the nonconference slate.
“I love that about the Tri-Cities,” St. Charles East coach Mike Fields said about the strength of local programs. “It’s been like that, with the success we had at Geneva when [Fields was an assistant there], with Batavia going down to the state championship game [under Mike Gaspari]. St. Charles since the split, my first year, [former coach Mark Gould] took North down to the [state quarterfinals]. So there’s some good football around here, and it shows.
“It’s nice to see that, and I hope that really works itself out where we can all get into the playoffs this year.”
That’s proven a tricky task lately, as only two of the four schools have made the playoffs each of the UEC River’s first three seasons. How much of that has to do with the Tri-Cities programs beating up on each other now that they share a conference, as opposed to cyclical downturns in talent that have hit the St. Charles schools and Geneva at certain points in recent years is up for debate.
A little bit of both might have been at play last season as the Vikings finish 4-5, missing the playoffs for the first time since 2003. Geneva went 0-for-the-Tri-Cities, losing to Batavia, East and North.
Geneva coach Rob Wicinski acknowledged the pain of missing the playoffs was sharpened by local rivals dealing mortal blows to the Vikings’ season.
“It stings because you know these guys,” Wicinski said. “They grew up playing with them, so definitely it’s more personal connections, and you have families [involved], even brothers, cousins. We’re all made out of the same cloth in the [Fox Valley]. We’re all the same people.
“It cracks me up when people say ‘Oh, those Batavia people,’ or ‘Oh, those St. Charles people.’ … It’s all the same people. So yeah, it stung. It stings more than getting beat by a Lake Zurich or an East St. Louis.”
While East is the only 2-0 team of the four entering Week 3, each of the others is 1-1, and the losses absorbed by Batavia, Geneva and North (in overtime to Elk Grove) all came to highly respected foes.
If results play out just right, it seems reasonable that this could be the first season since 2008 for the Tri-Cities to go 4 for 4 on the playoff bid front. Wicinski doesn’t discount the possibility.
“I think I’ve got a good feel for what East has,” Wicinski said. “Batavia, I’m going to find out [tonight]. North, I have no idea but they just beat the bejesus out of [Plainfield Central], and they’re touting that tailback as being the next coming, so if he’s that good, we’ll definitely have our hands full with all their D-I players.”
Batavia coach Dennis Piron’s Bulldogs are the two-time defending UEC River champions, running the table both times.
Piron said the way local teams challenge themselves against excellent nonconference opposition makes for minimal margin for error by the time conference play arrives.
“If you’re going to want to make the playoffs, you’re going to have to beat a couple of those [Tri-Cities] teams, and right now it looks like everyone in on the upswing, so it looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun competition,” Piron said.
Fun competition, for sure, as tonight’s crowds should attest.
But if the first three years of the UEC River are an accurate indicator, it’ll come at a cost to somebody.
“I think there’s an odd-man out rule because everyone’s got to play each other,” North coach Rob Pomazak said. “You drop one game that you shouldn’t, and now you’re on the outside looking in.”
Tri-Cities playoff bids in last 10 years
2012: Batavia, St. Charles East
2011: Batavia, Geneva
2010: Batavia, Geneva
2009: Geneva, St. Charles East, St. Charles North
2008: Batavia, Geneva, St. Charles East, St. Charles North
2007: Batavia, Geneva, St. Charles East, St. Charles North
2006: Batavia, Geneva, St. Charles East, St. Charles North
2005: Batavia, Geneva, St. Charles East, St. Charles North
2004: Batavia, Geneva, St. Charles North
2003: Batavia, St. Charles North
Note: Batavia and Geneva joined St. Charles East and St. Charles North in the UEC River in 2010.