Sometime before Saturday's rematch in the Class 8A quarterfinals, Neuqua Valley's Joey Rhattigan and Waubonsie Valley's Austin Guido will exchange text messages. Something along the lines of "Good luck!" or "Have a good game!" rather than "I'm going to kick your butt!"
Rhattigan and Guido are two of the most prolific running backs in Illinois. They also are good friends and fierce competitors. They grew up playing on the Naperville Patriots youth travel team. In the off-season, they train with former NFL player Kevin Kasper, a Hinsdale South graduate, at Extreme Speed Gym in Plainfield.
"We are good friends but very competitive," Guido said. "I talked to him before my game (on Saturday). I congratulated him on his good game (on Friday). No matter what the outcome of the game is, we'll remain good friends."
At Extreme Speed Gym, they engage in several drills. They push a tread sled for a certain length of time to see how much distance they can achieve. And they push a prowler, with weights on both sides, usually against each other. "He has his good days and I have my good days," Guido said.
"We talk, we joke, we have a competitive relationship," Rhattigan said. "We'll probably talk more when the season is over. I'll probably send him a text this week."
They prefer to do their talking on the football field. Imagine, they might have ended up in the same backfield. Guido and a dozen Waubonsie Valley starters played with Rhattigan and his friends in youth football. All were slated to attend Neuqua Valley but the school boundary was redrawn when Metea Valley was opened. So Guido went to Waubonsie Valley.
In 11 games, Guido, a 5-foot-10, 190-pound senior, has rushed 292 games for 2,236 yards and 30 touchdowns. He has amassed over 200 yards in seven games. In last Saturday's 28-7 victory over Oak Park, he ran behind fullback Demario Webb a season-high 39 times for 232 yards and two touchdowns.
"I knew there would be a lot of pounding the ball," he said. "Saturday mornings after Friday games are rough. The team comes in for a light jog or ride bikes. Then I come home and take an ice bath for 30 minutes and apply ice. How sore am I? It depends on the game. But my body usually is tired and sore after a big game."
Rhattigan, a 6-foot, 205-pound senior, has rushed187 times for 1,968 yards and 32 touchdowns. He has been on a tear in the state playoff, rushing for 228 yards and four touchdowns in a 56-20 rout of Naperville North and
344 yards and five touchdowns in a 44-33 upset of defending Class 8A champion Bolingbrook.
"I really can't explain it," he said. "When you put the season on the line, you try to do better than your best. During the regular season, I played six half-games because of the score. In the playoff games, I'm into the fourth quarter and getting more carries. I like to carry the ball."
So what about this Saturday's rematch? What do they remember most about their first meeting, Neuqua Valley's heart-stopping 35-34 double overtime decision on Oct. 5?
"Our team's attitude at halftime," Rhattigan said. "Going into halftime, we were focused and ready to play the second half. What stands out is our motto: finish. I don't remember the score, even if we were behind. Our attitude was about focusing and finishing."
Neuqua Valley trailed 14-7 at halftime as Guido rushed for 134 of his 252 yards in the first two quarters. But Rhattigan finished with 131 yards rushing and three touchdowns and quarterback Dylan Andrew completed 15 of 21 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns as Neuqua Valley rallied to win.
"The second overtime sticks out the most," Guido said. "After scoring a touchdown, the captains (Guido, Troy Fumagalli, Dylan Warden, Austin Lacke) decided to go for a two-point conversion. It failed. It was a miscommunication. I messed up. I went the wrong way. There were a few things that went wrong."
Rhattigan and Guido have something else in common. Neither has a scholarship offer. Both want to play at the highest level in college that they can and their success this season has stirred some interest. But letters in the mail are one thing and an offer or an invitation to visit a school is quite another.
Rhattigan is a straight-A student with a 30 ACT who is talking to Princeton and Harvard weekly. He also is hearing from Penn State, where his brother is enrolled.
"Would I give up an Ivy League education for Big Ten football?" he said. "That's something I'll have to think about after the season."
Guido has been talking to Western Michigan, Northern Illinois, Wyoming, Drake and Dayton for most of the season. "If our team keeps playing well and I keep playing well, I know good things will happen," he said.
With five new starters in the offensive line, Waubonsie Valley coach Paul Murphy wasn't sure if Guido would pile up such staggering numbers and be such a difference-maker this season. But he has been persuaded.
"He has a great knack for finding the seams and squaring up his shoulders to get first downs," Murphy said. "He has a second gear that all great backs have. He is a tough match-up for anyone in the open field. He takes a pounding but he is very strong for his size. He has great vision, great work ethic, great attitude and great desire. He won't go down."
But he'll have to get past Rhattigan on Saturday in Naperville.
"This season has unfolded with memories that I'll never forget," Rhattigan said. "We'll take pride for a long time in being the best team at Neuqua Valley since it opened (in 1997). We hope our team sets a standard for other teams to be their best, to be better if they can.
"You can't predict your record at the beginning of the season but you can predict how much effort you will give. We turned out to be 11-0 up to now. I'm confident we will be 14-0.
"Last year, we lost five in a row and finished 5-5. We were underachievers. We should have been better. It was disappointing. But it provided motivation for this year's team. Last year gave us a chip on our shoulders to play well this year. We didn't want to be disappointed this year."