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Druley: Tri-Cities crew plentiful for bowl-bound Huskies

DeKALB – Much of the Northern Illinois football team’s Tri-Cities contingent remained after practice Thursday, and not just because they’d been summoned by a certain reporter.

Offensive tackle Ryan Brown and linebacker Michael Santacaterina honed their conditioning as wide receiver Matt Williams, a converted quarterback, threw to a teammate wanting extra reps.

While pundits and TV scheduling suggest the Huskies’ Dec. 6 loss to Bowling Green in the Mid-American Conference championship game prompted a sizable plummet, the Huskies are of an optimistic mind. No, Thursday’s Poinsettia Bowl against Utah State in San Diego isn’t the Bowl Championship Series, just the next chance to showcase the program to a national audience.

“The best way to get that taste out of your mouth is to get back on the field and get a win, you know,” Brown said. “That loss stays for a while, so the only way to get rid of it is win again.”

NIU seeks the school’s first 13-win season after earning a landmark Orange Bowl berth in 2012. Brown (St. Charles North) and former Geneva athletes Santacaterina and Williams are among those who have helped the cause.

Marmion product Bobby Winkel of Batavia has rebounded from knee and foot injuries to resume his role as a key special-teamer. Jess Striedl (St. Charles East) keeps working to improve his stock, while freshmen Chad Beebe, Joel Bouagnon and Brandon Mayes look to keep a championship feeling alive after boosting Aurora Christian’s rise to prominence.

Here are some NIU tidbits as kickoff gets closer:

• Santacaterina enters the bowl game with 61 tackles, ranked fifth on the team. If he looks slightly different in pursuit of quarterbacks and ballcarriers, it’s because he switched jersey numbers from 52 to 7 this season.

Santacaterina shifted to No. 7 because he “wanted to keep it in the family.” Younger brother Daniel wears the number as Geneva’s quarterback, older sister Jackie wore it as a collegiate soccer player and cousin Mike Magee had it earlier in his soccer career.

Magee, a Chicago Fire forward, was selected as most valuable player of Major League Soccer earlier this month.

• Listed at 6-foot-6 and 283 pounds, Brown is playing closer to 290 as he primarily gets snaps at left tackle.

“Definitely a lot bigger,” Brown said. “We had a big year in the weight room because we felt we got pushed around last year in the bowl game, so that was really something we wanted to emphasize. Just getting stronger and everything.”

NIU trailed Florida State, 17-10, after three quarters in the Orange Bowl before the Seminoles pulled away for a 31-10 victory. These days, Florida State is ranked No. 1 and preparing to play Auburn for the national title.

The Seminoles re-entered the Huskies’ stratosphere last week when freshman quarterback Jameis Winston became the youngest Heisman Trophy winner in history, topping a field that included NIU quarterback Jordan Lynch.

“It’s kind of cool that they’re the No. 1 team right now, knowing that we’re … one of the only teams that has come close to them [in a while],” Santacaterina said. “I know it’s a new quarterback and everything, new team, but it’s just kind of cool to look back, watching them on TV and stuff, knowing that they’ve got some good players on the team.”

• Brown’s older brother, Patrick, recently began work in the private sector after retiring from the NFL as an offensive lineman. Patrick Brown went to training camp with the Carolina Panthers last summer but decided to move on from football after suffering a torn rotator cuff.

• Winkel watched Marmion play twice at Fichtel Field this season. Williams saw Geneva play a regular-season home game (Wheaton North) and also was on hand when the Vikings lost a Class 7A first-round playoff game to St. Patrick.

“It’s cool going back and watching them play. They’re hooked up now with some pretty cool unis and helmet stickers,” Williams said. “They’ve got the hook-up now. I’m just glad that they got back on track this year after a tough season a couple years ago. Hopefully, they’ll do even better next year. I’m excited to watch them play.”

• Ryan Brown has not been farther west than Las Vegas, so he happily absorbed a San Diego scouting report from Peter Nelson, a North alumnus who started at both offensive tackle positions for San Diego State.

“He’s told me all the good spots and places to go,” Brown said.

Santacaterina visited the city as a child for one of his sister’s soccer tournaments.

Renown for another Brown: The Illinois Youth Soccer Association recently honored Campton United director of girls coaching Chris Brown as its 2013 girls coach of the year.

Brown was recognized for overseeing the U10, U13, U14, U16 and U17 teams. The U16 girls and boys were especially successful, earning separate President’s Cup state championships.

Brown, who played collegiately at NIU, rejoined Campton United three years ago and boasts more than a decade of coaching experience.

Old teammates, new horizons: Former NFL quarterback Brett Favre linked up with Don Beebe on 41 passes – including four touchdowns – during their time as Green Bay Packers teammates from 1996 to 1997.

Beebe’s recent decision to step down as Aurora Christian football coach but likely remain as offensive coordinator connected the men once more.

Favre recently completed his second season as offensive coordinator at Oak Grove High in Hattiesburg, Miss. The Warriors won the Class 6A Mississippi state championship Dec. 6.

• Kevin Druley is a sportswriter for the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5347 or Follow him on Twitter at @kevindruley.


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