Batavia (9-3) at Lake Zurich (11-1)
When: Saturday, 4 p.m.
Previous Matchup: Batavia 37, Lake Zurich 0 (2021 Class 7A first round)
Seeds: Batavia is the No. 18 seed in the 32-team Class 7A bracket; Lake Zurich is the No. 11 seed.
About the Bulldogs: Batavia is in the state semifinals for the sixth time since 2006 and first since 2018. The Bulldogs are looking for their first trip back to the state championship game since 2017 (and fourth since 2006). This is a rematch from last year’s first round. However, Batavia will be facing a much different Lake Zurich team that has enjoyed a 6-win improvement from a year ago. “Defense and explosive plays. Lake Zurich does both well,” Batavia coach Dennis Piron said. “They make you earn every yard and point you get. We have strangely played them a bit the last few years so we do know them almost like a conference school. Expect a very physical and tough game just like the last few weeks.” Piron continued, calling Lake Zurich “a high-caliber, extremely well-coached program that hustles and is always in the state conversation as a program,” he said. “They were in the playoffs rebuilding last year. These are a lot of the same kids.” Piron said special teams came up big last week against Yorkville (17-6 win), “playing the ‘wind’ game at Batavia seems to help,” he noted. “More than anything, our players are truly in the mindset of understanding how special this all is and they don’t want this to end. That is the common theme, one more week.” Tight end play has been important for the Bulldogs with Kyle Kristensen, Brady Ninowski and CJ Valente excelling in that role. “Our tight end group is like three players combined into one,” Piron said. “They all play at different times and all do a great job of being ready, warmed up and focused — very few errors and they all play.” Valente also snaps on point-after and field goal attempts. Piron also has been thrilled with the play of nose tackle Jordan Buckley. “Jordan is a selfless and hardworking and tough player who has done an amazing job of controlling the defensive line all year,” he said. “He’s very hard to block and rarely loses the line-of-scrimmage battle.” Junior outside linebacker Ben Fiegel’s contributions in the playoffs haven’t gone unnoticed either. “Ben gets overshadowed by the big names,” Piron said. Charlie Whelpley, Piron explained, punts, has thrown passes, blocks as the H-back/fullback, plays wide receiver, plays running back, wing and tight end. “Charlie is a really valuable overall team player and he is an amazing person,” Piron noted. Piron said the message this week centers around the one-more-week message. “One more week is the goal and that is about brotherhood and family,” he said. “The goal isn’t really state, it’s keeping this team together as long as we can because it is never this way ever again, and we love being together.” Senior linebacker-running back Tyler Jansey (team-high 113 tackles) was named to the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Class 7A all-state first team. Ryan Whitwell has run for 1,229 yards and has 22 total touchdowns. Ryan Boe has passed for 1,466 yards and 15 scores. Whelpley is his most common target (41 catches, 472 yards, 5 TD).
About the Bears: As Piron alluded to, these teams have butted heads in the postseason recently with last year’s first-round game and then the 2017 state title game (Batavia won 21-14). “Batavia is a traditional 7A power,” Bears coach Ron Planz said. “They have great athletes and coaches. They play fast, physical and smart. This will be one of the best teams we have seen this year. This year’s Batavia team is more dynamic on offense and more experienced on defense. They were young last year and those guys are now one-year older and playing like veterans.” Planz liked what he saw far away from home last week against Pekin. “I liked our overall relentlessness and belief in our approach to attacking the process and the adversity that comes with playing a great team at their place in front of a great crowd after a long bus trip,” he said. “Our kids never quit. They kept doing what we asked them to do, how we asked them to do it and were able to come away with a great victory.” Richie Marmol, who starts at left tackle, is one of two returning offensive-line starters for the Bears. “I love the consistency that Richie has played with this year,” Planz said. “Seeing his growth not only from last year to this year, but also throughout the course of the season has been awesome. He is a true leader for us up front.” Lincoln Adams has 23 tackles and 1 interception in the playoffs. “Lincoln is a really good football player,” Planz said. “He is usually where he needs to be and finishes really well. He has played great all season, but sometimes gets overshadowed by Cal Grabowski and Tyler Burkley, the other two linebackers. Without Lincoln, our defense would not be as good as it has been.” Planz said Lake Zurich doesn’t win its last two playoff games without Tyler Erkman. “His huge run to put the game away at Wheaton North was great,” he said. “Against Pekin, he absolutely took over the game. He caught 2 touchdown passes and his kick return for a touchdown kept us in the game. Not only has he dominated on offense and special teams this postseason, he has been great on defense as well.” In the playoffs, Erkman has caught 8 passes for 198 yards (24.8 yards per catch), run 2 times for 59 yards, has 13 tackles, 1 interception and 4 pass breakups on defense, has returned 3 kickoffs for 78 yards and 2 punts for 109 yards. Grabowski (running back and linebacker) and Spencer Kuehl (free safety) also have been key for the bears. “Cal and Spencer have both been great for us on defense and Cal also has been great for us playing running back,” Planz said. Grabowski has 24 tackles, 2 tackles for loss and 1 interception on defense in the playoffs, while rushing for 153 yards on 31 carries on offense. Kuehl has 22 tackles. The winner of this game gets the survivor of the Chicago Catholic League showdown between Mt. Carmel (12-0) and St. Rita (10-2) in the 7A final next weekend in Champaign.