It's rivalry week here in Courier country, and in my opinion there's no better week on this year's schedule.
There's something about showdowns between natural rivals -- whether they play in the same town or in neighboring communities - that always seems to bring out the best effort from players, coaches, student cheering sections and sometimes even entire communities.
This weekend, area fans can't go wrong by going out to any one of three local showdowns. On Friday, Hampshire and Burlington Central will renew pleasantries in Burlington. Meanwhile, St Charles North and St. Charles East will be squaring off on the northwest side of St. Charles. On Saturday morning, Elgin and Larkin will meet for the 48th time at Memorial Field.
So what is it that separates these games from the rest? Answering this question has a number of layers.
It starts with bragging rights. Everybody likes to be a winner, and beating a neighbor - as long as it's done respectfully - lends a heightened sense of pride.
Next there's tradition. There's a story behind all three of these area rivalries that extends back generations before any of the players who will take the field this weekend were born. Tradition is so often overlooked, but in my opinion this is a key element in any great rivalry.
On the surface, there are a number of cosmetic differences between Elgin and Larkin, St. Charles East and St. Charles North, and Burlington Central and Hampshire. However, a peek inside the actual buildings at the actual students will show that these neighboring schools aren't all that different. To me, that's the biggest reason these games hold so much importance.
This is especially the case in Elgin and St. Charles, where I feel there's been a legitimate effort to make sure all things are equal on both sides of town. So often we get so caught up with the final scores of these rivalry games and who owns the all-time series lead that we forget these schools are in many ways joined at the hip.
This seems to be a bit more well understood in Elgin, where the rivalry between the Maroons and Royals is much more mature. By mature, I'm simply saying that the rivalry has existed much longer and that all parties involved know how to handle the situation better than their counterparts in St Charles.
Compared to some rivalries, the one between the Saints and North Stars is essentially in its infant stages. Tonight the varsity football teams will be meeting for only the ninth time, so it's somewhat understood that things get chippy when these two squads collide.
A little history lesson also helps explain why the rivalry between the St. Charles schools is the fiercest around these parts.
In St. Charles, excellence on the playing field has long been expected, and for a while excellence was the norm. During the 1998-99 school year, St. Charles High School won state titles in boys golf, girls golf, girls cross country, girls swimming, boys swimming, girls soccer and baseball. That's right, seven state championships in one school year (and this is back in the day of one and two classes when the goal didn't seen to be to reward everybody with a medal). Granted, not all of those were top-line sports. But it should be noted that the Saints went 11-1 on the football field that year.
The bottom line is that the '98-99 school year was the high point of the golden age for St. Charles sports, and I say that from experience because I was a junior at St. Charles High that year. And in case you were wondering, I was not a member of any of those teams, just an ardent supporter. My athletic skills only took me as far as the freshman basketball "B" team, but I was more than happy to handle pregame introductions for the basketball team and lead our student cheering section as a way of lending a hand. My powerhouse intramural basketball team was even so kind to scrimmage against the girls varsity team, even though I don't think we were really offering the ladies that much competition.
During my four years of high school, the Saints won four girls soccer state titles, four girls swimming state titles, two boys swimming state titles, two girls cross country state titles, a boys soccer state title and the other aforementioned state crowns.
At times it seemed like our school was a state championship factory, and the pep assemblies to acknowledge the achievements eventually became old hat. However, with every trophy added to the trophy case, there was a general sense of pride in the fact that our school was doing something that would perhaps never be matched again. I'm pretty sure the Chicago Tribune acknowledged as much when it ran a story on the front of its sports section the day after the Saints captured their seventh and final state crown of that 1998-99 school year.
So what does that success have to do with the current state of things. Well, I'm pretty sure it has everything to do with the at-times toxic atmosphere that hovers over the competition between St. Charles East and St. Charles North.
These days, there are varsity coaches in given sports at the two schools who refuse to acknowledge one another. From what I understand, it's a small group, and I'll be honest that I know very few of the details and very little background about the situation. But what kind of example does that set for the athletes who play for those coaches?
As much as this behavior abhors the St. Charles graduate in me, I feel I can identify the root of the problem as being the drop off in success that occurred when the old St. Charles High split into two schools at the start of the 2000-01 school year, which happens to be the year after I graduated.
After growing accustomed to always being the best, it was a bitter pill to swallow for some who were most invested in the town's athletics programs when the dynasty was broken into pieces. State titles haven't exactly been flowing in since. East has two crowns in the past nine years while North has none.
Although the town has changed quite a bit in the past decade, that demand for excellence still runs deep. The problem is that now it's an "us-against-them" mentality in St. Charles. Jealousy sometimes seems to rule on both sides of town as the athletics programs engage in an arms race to out-do their crosstown counterpart. Therein lies the problem.
I'm all for a good rivalry, and I like seeing so much spirit when I attend any event between East and North. But the Saints and North Stars need to realize where they came from. St. Charles was once a state power on the athletics scene, and it might be again if the animosity the two schools at times feel toward one another is put aside.
I think a few of the coaches in St. Charles understand this, including North football coach Mark Gould and East football coach Ted Monken. It is up to these coaches to make sure the animosity simmers, and there are plenty of people in place at both schools to see that this happens. I'm talking about coaches who taught and coached at the unified school like Gould, East volleyball coach Jennie Kull, East wrestling coach Steve Smerz and North golf coach Rob Prentiss. I'm talking about St. Charles High graduates who have now come back to take on coaching positions at the schools like North boys basketball coach Tom Poulin, North girls soccer coach Ruth Vostal and countless other assistant coaches who I am not naming. The involvement and institutional knowledge of what it takes to be a winner that these people hold should be respected and could help make this a healthy rivalry.
Although both East and North appear headed to the playoffs once again, the winner of Friday's game will earn an automatic berth by reaching the six-win mark. The winner will also in all likelihood receive a better seed and a home game in the upcoming Class 7A playoffs. That seems like a worthy prize.
But speaking as a St. Charles native, I'd like to see both make deep playoff runs.
People always assume I side with the Saints in these crosstown showdowns because that's the building I attended when I was in high school. That's not the case. In my opinion, my alma mater as I know it no longer exists. My allegiances went away the day the school split in half, but that doesn't mean I don't like seeing both schools have success on the playing field.
If St Charles wants to get it right and get back to that long lost level of excellence, I say the two sides of town should start offering each other support. It would be really cool to see East and North play for a state championship, but football is the only sport where that could potentially happen and the odds of the draw setting up that way are almost nil. But if one team gets knocked out, why not have the team from the other side of town go root on its rival the following week. It might not guarantee a win, but it would help give that remaining team a greater sense of purpose. There should be several thousand fans on hand for tonight's game, and that same crowd should be out if one St. Charles school makes it down to Champaign.
I think this revelation hit me last winter as Elgin made its run to the Elite Eight in boys basketball. As we all know, Elgin is much more starved for success than St. Charles, and maybe that's why members of the Larkin boys basketball team were on hand to root on the Maroons during the sectional round. Those Royals won just one basketball game last year and could easily have tuned out Elgin's run following their own abysmal season, but that show of support said something to me about the character of the rivalry between the two schools in Elgin. It seems to be catching on that there should be a certain sense of pride in representing Elgin, not just the name of the school on your jersey.
That's the sign of a mature rivalry, and the St. Charles schools would be wise to grow up quickly.