GENEVA – The player who seldom sees the bench talked about benchmarks this week, opportunities for the recently mighty Geneva football team to bring offense, defense, special teams and history together.
Geneva travels to Wheaton Warrenville South tonight for a second-round game in the IHSA Class 7A playoffs, and by the sounds of running back/safety Michael Santacaterina won’t pack many memories of last year’s climb to within one win of the 7A state title.
“This is a signature game for us, a great opportunity for the program,” Santacaterina said. “It’s one of those games that would have a huge impact on things for a long time.”
It wasn’t long ago that other teams described the Vikings that way. Oh, the respect a 36-point average margin of victory can get you. Wheaton Warrenville South’s success is more than sudden, though. The Tigers – 9-1 like Geneva and the No. 2 seed in their bracket to the Vikings’ No. 3 – bring an undoubtedly impressive postseason resume into a game that has even the Vikings calling themselves underdogs. Since 1990, the Tigers boast five state titles and three second-place trophies, going undefeated three times.
The Vikings have qualified for the playoffs seven times in the same span, including each of the last six seasons under inspired coach Rob Wicinski.
“It might sound goofy,” said Wicinski, beginning to channel his inner Santacaterina, “but this is an absolutely great opportunity for us. It’s the coolest thing. I’m very anxious to see where our program lies. If it happens we get clipped pretty bad, well, now we know and we go to work. If we’re there, if we’re in the fight or we clip them, everything’s a positive here, no matter what.”
Geneva graduated 18 starters from last year’s team, the first Vikings group to reach the title game since 1975. Even after opening this season 3-0, Wicinski wondered about what kind of group he had. A down-to-the wire Week 4 victory at Glenbard South answered several questions.
The Vikings rallied from a Week 7 loss to Rochelle to earn a share of the final Western Sun Conference title and topped Shepard, 38-6, on Burgess Field in the first round last week. Still, the DuPage Valley Conference champion Tigers throttled St. Laurence, 61-6, leaving Geneva players to suddenly consider themselves by a different standard. The Tigers’ lone loss this season came in Week 2 against Maine South (10-0).
“I was weaned on being the underdog and just trying to survive,” said Wicinski, who was 10-35 in five seasons before the current playoff streak. “The coaching staff realizes where we’re kind of at, being an underdog and all, but these kids don’t really know that. They just know success. So I’m kind of interested to see what kind of blend they pull off here.”
Sure as Santacaterina plays both ways, the Vikings don’t play to back down.
“We always have the target on our back in our conference, and we always get everyone’s best game,” Santacaterina said. “Now it’s our turn to go out there and do the opposite to Wheaton Warrenville. They’ve got a target on their back and they’ve had it for awhile. We’ve got nothing to lose.”