Evan Short couldn’t hear himself think the first time he played at Huskie Stadium in 2011.
Short, an offensive lineman for Sycamore, was a sophomore playing in only his third varsity game in front of his family, friends and the biggest crowd for a high school game in the county.
“It was scary the first time, the big stadium, all the fans yelling and screaming,” said Short, now a senior. “It’s a different atmosphere. I was focused on not looking bad while I was playing.”
Two years later, none of that is a worry for Short, who has been through the crazy atmosphere of the annual Week 3 rivalry game between DeKalb and Sycamore twice now. He has more confidence, more self-trust and the helpful experience of knowing what to expect from the most anticipated local matchup of the year.
Many of the players on both sides of tonight’s game at Huskie Stadium will have been there before. Although last year’s matchup was played by largely younger teams, the 2013 version will feature a pair of more experienced teams whose players can say they’ve “been there, done that.”
“We’re returning a lot of people, a lot of starters, and a lot of them have game-time experience there last year, so that helps a lot,” said Sycamore senior receiver Ben Niemann, who will be playing in this rivalry game for the third time.
DeKalb senior Drew Paszotta was in the same position as Niemann and Short two years ago. With limited game experience, he was thrown into an unfamiliar environment and expected to perform at a high level.
The intimidation of the big stage that Paszotta felt as a sophomore went away for him last year. He said the nerves dissipated and he came in well-prepared and excited to play.
“You’ve got to prepare the same way just as any other week,” Paszotta said. “If you’re too worried about it, you’re going to worry about making a mistake and then you’re going to play to not make a mistake and that’s just when you’re not playing your best.”
Although the game is played at a neutral site, it technically is counted as a home game for Sycamore. But that’s not how Sycamore coach Joe Ryan treats it, instead looking at the rivalry game as a road trip.
It’s a philosophy that has helped the Spartans win their past five games against the Barbs. Over the past four seasons, the Spartans actually have a better record on the road than when they play in front of their home crowd. Since 2010, Sycamore is a healthy 13-4 away from Engh Community Field and 12-6 at home.
“[DeKalb-Sycamore is] very similar like going on the road because when you go on the road, everything’s just a little bit different, every school does things a little bit different,” Ryan said. “So you have to be able to adapt to how they’re doing things and you can’t let that bother you.”
DeKalb coach Matt Weckler might be the person on the field most unfamiliar with the revelry of tonight’s game, having come to DeKalb from Belvidere North after last season.
Weckler said people have told him about the atmosphere, adding that he expects it to be “crazy, loud and a lot of fun.” Although Weckler never has participated in the DeKalb-Sycamore series, the significance of it isn’t lost on him. In the run-up to tonight, he had returning players like Paszotta speak about their experiences.
“There’s not too many in the state or the country that get the opportunity to play in a Division I stadium in front of 10,000 people, and for these guys you get two, some people three years, to experience that,” Weckler said. “For us, we want those guys to tell our lower levels plus all the rest of the guys that haven’t done it before how special of an opportunity it is for them.”
It’s also an opportunity for DeKalb to end Sycamore’s recent domination in the rivalry. And while Paszotta draws upon the past two years’ experience to calm himself beforehand, he’ll use it as added fuel once kickoff arrives.
“It motivates you even more to want to beat them,” Paszotta said. “Especially for me, playing two years in a row and losing to them on such a big stage. It’s really hard.”