Even in defeat, Batavia embraces journey to Champaign ‘We love these kids, and we build them into football players’

Joe Lewnard/jlewnard@dailyherald.com
Batavia's Ryan Whitwell (3) holds the second-place trophy alongside fellow captains following the bulldogs 44-20 loss to Mount Carmel during the Class 7A football state title game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022.

CHAMPAIGN – Ryan Whitwell broke down in tears as he reflected on Batavia football’s future, and his friend and fellow senior Tyler Jansey did the same.

They were not tears of disappointment.

It was sadness that for the Batavia seniors their journey had come to an end. Kids that had played together since middle school never would again.

For Batavia coach Dennis Piron, he’s known many of these boys since first or second grade. Some, longer.

He wasn’t ready for it to end.

“Ryan, I probably saw within a couple days of his birth, I’m not kidding because I’ve known his father that long,” Piron said. “It’s a different sort of thing. This is the guys we get in Batavia. We love them, and we build them into football players as best we can.”

Darn good ones, in fact.

Piron has been coaching football at his alma mater for 34 years. He’s built quite a culture in his hometown – and it shows win or lose. This was the third time he had taken Batavia to the championship game since taking over as head coach in 2011.

Joe Lewnard/jlewnard@dailyherald.com
Batavia's Charlie Whelpley (4) celebrates a touchdown with teammates including Nick Ruiz, left, and Jackson Nekolny during the Class 7A football state title game against Mount Carmel at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022.

It didn’t end in the same manner the first two did – this time it was a 44-20 loss to Mount Carmel in the Class 7A final Nov. 26 – but it didn’t take long for Piron to see the big picture.

“The whole season, generally, has been wonderful for our team and our community, but really for these guys,” Piron said. “It’s so hard to be a head coach of a program and have guys that you have known for a big portion of their lives. The sadness isn’t the game. They played their butts off. But it’s that we’re done. We’re sad, that’s all. It was going to be sad either way.”

The game did not get off on the right foot.

Mount Carmel led 28-0 in a blink of an eye, scoring touchdowns on its first four possessions in the game’s first 15 minutes.

Similar to its Week 2 loss to Lincoln-Way East, though, Batavia refused to fold up its tent and go home.

Whitwell scored on a 3-yard run and Ryan Boe threw a 12-yard TD pass to C.J. Valente to close to within 31-12 at the half.

That kind of fight is what the Bulldogs have shown all year long, even after a 1-2 start to the season. Even after a heartbreaking double overtime loss to St. Charles North to end the regular season.

“It shows that we all got heart. That is something that is built in the offseason, grinding,” Jansey said. “It’s been obvious since the start of the season that we do not quit. Against Lincoln-Way East, we were down 31-0 and second half, we shut them out. It shows that our dudes do have grit. We are going to fight for each other until we die.”

Joe Lewnard/jlewnard@dailyherald.com
Batavia's Ryan Whitwell, right, gets a pat on the chest from teammate Jimmy Zitkus after scoring a second-quarter touchdown during the Class 7A football state title game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2022.

Indeed. Boe took a huge hit trying to run an option late in the first quarter, but the junior quarterback got right back up. He threw for 148 yards and a touchdown in the game.

“You’re going to do whatever you can for your brothers. You’ve got to keep going,” Boe said. “I didn’t want to let them down. I know any time they would take a big hit they would get back up for me. I wanted to do the same for them.”

It did not help matters for Boe and Batavia’s offense that one of its biggest playmakers, Drew Gerke, was lost to an injury early in the first half.

Gerke did not return, but Batavia’s players refused to lean on his loss as an excuse.

“One player does not make a team. You’re going to lose players. We lost four of them today,” Batavia senior linebacker Jack Sadowsky said. “It was whoever is next. Second stringers played just as hard.”

Just like the next group of Batavia kids surely will play just as hard. That’s what they do.

Whitwell looks forward to being part of it, even if he wore the uniform for the last time Saturday night in Champaign.

“After we lost to Mount Carmel in the second round last year, every day we were working out together with the older guys. That’s going to be the same way this year,” Whitwell said. “These two guys [Jansey and Sadowsky] are going to graduate early, but I’m going to be in the weight room every morning with my linemen working because I enjoy it.

“That’s the great thing about Batavia. We have known each other forever. I don’t know if Mount Carmel can say that. We’ve been playing together since sixth, seventh grade. Our memories aren’t made in the games. Our memories are made on that field early mornings, me and Jansey doing drills just by ourselves. That’s where memories are made.”