There is no playoff berth or conference title riding on the outcome. But when West Aurora travels across town Friday to play at East Aurora, don’t dare call it meaningless. Not out loud, anyway.
The Blackhawks may be 2-5 and the Tomcats 0-7, but West sophomore Daquan Cross and East senior Nathaniel Booker know the significance. Both their fathers — Kendrick Cross and Robert Booker — played in the game and so have they.
They all matter, but especially this one.
“Greatest rivalry in the state of Illinois and it’s got 122 years of tradition,” said Kurt Becker, East’s coach and a former Tomcat.
On the opposing sideline is West coach and former Blackhawk Nate Eimer. Both are happy that with West rejoining the Upstate Eight Conference, the game had to be pushed back rather than be played as the season opener.
“Playing the first game it just didn’t have the sense of that tradition and now it’s back to where it used to be,” Becker said.
For decades, in the pre-playoff era, it was a longstanding tradition to play the game the final week of the season, usually on Thanksgiving weekend.
“You have a chance to get your team ready,” Eimer said. “I love it way better than playing in Week 1.”
Daquan Cross was a freshman cornerback who also kicked off in last year’s season opener. He got stiff-armed by East senior Desmond Gant, now at Minnesota, on a 94-yard return for a touchdown.
Booker, a sophomore starter two years ago at West, broke a bone in his ankle when he got hit on the side of the leg while making a block late in the first half. He needed surgery and missed the rest of the season.
Both may have been inauspicious debuts, but each player persevered. Both are playing play key roles this season as two-way starters.
Cross sees action as a running back and “stud” linebacker, the term West uses for its inside LBs. He also sees plenty of time on special teams.
“I think he came out two plays (in last week’s upset in double overtime of undefeated Waubonsie Valley),” Eimer said. “He was our leading rusher and leading tackler.”
He’s close to junior teammate, Drake Spears. They attended the same camp last summer in Champaign when Spears received a scholarship offer from Illinois coaches.
“I was as excited as he was. He’s more like a brother than a teammate,” said Cross, whose fraternal twin Davion is also on varsity. “I can trust (Spears). We feed off each other during the game. If he does something big, I’m gonna have to do something big, too.”
Booker, who starts at running back and strong safety, played with a torn labrum that required surgery after last season.
“Two major surgeries but he’s come back this year and has been a tremendous leader for us on and off the field. I’m very proud of him,” Becker said.
Booker has scored six touchdowns for the Tomcats, four on runs of 60 yards or more.
“No matter who we play, you can’t doubt yourself,” Booker said. “I just try to run hard, run fast.”
He also likes the family chemistry Becker has developed.
“His journey is inspiring,” Booker said. “It’s more than a team, and family doesn’t quit on each other.
“Even though he’s played in the NFL, (Becker) says he wishes he could come back and play on Friday nights and we should make the most of it. That’s what I always try to do.”
Like Becker, finds victories where he can.
“We started with 65 kids on varsity and we’re down to 50,” the coach said. “You might say I’ve lost 15 kids, but I didn’t. I figure I gained 20, because last year at this time I only had 30. I look at the upside. Our successes come in many ways and shapes.”