Naperville North quarterback Aidan Gray won’t forget the moment.
In the inaugural DuPage Valley Conference championship game last October, the Northwestern recruit scrambled 18 yards for a touchdown as time expired to lift the Huskies to a 34-32 victory against Neuqua Valley.
“You learn that every game counts,” Gray said. “If you were in second place, you had a chance to win the conference in a game at the end of the season.”
But just a year after introducing a regular-season finale that featured the top two teams in the conference, the DVC has scrapped the idea.
“Some of the other coaches didn’t like it,” Naperville North coach Sean Drendel said. “There were some concerns you could have of an injury before the state playoffs. One of our best players, Luke Williams, broke his hand in that game and couldn’t play the next week. I wasn’t complaining.”
The Week 9 games this season will be rematches of regular-season games. Those games will not be part of the final DVC standings.
Naperville North will play city rival Naperville Central on Oct. 20, on Thursday. Neuqua Valley will play at Metea Valley and Waubonsie Valley will play at DeKalb the same day.
The one-year experiment that featured the conference championship game and matchups of the teams that finished 3-4 and 5-6 in the standings is history.
“This definitely makes us take every game one at a time,” Gray said. “Now you just have to play every game like it’s the championship.”
Despite the upset loss that snapped its 18-game regular-season winning streak, Neuqua Valley reached the Class 8A state quarterfinals.
Some of the Wildcats players felt it was unfair they had to beat a team in the conference final they already defeated during the regular season.
“At the time, I wasn’t a fan of the conference title game, but I felt that it was a really good wake-up call for us as a team moving forward,” said Neuqua Valley senior receiver Grant Larkin, a North Dakota State recruit.
The DVC has struggled to fill out a nine-game schedule since the departures of Wheaton Warrenville South and Glenbard North.
Naperville North, Naperville Central and Neuqua Valley will host out-of-state schools in Week 3 to fill their schedules.
“I really like the idea of a championship game,” Naperville Central coach Mike Ulreich said. “Even though North lost the first game to Neuqua last year, that gave them motivation to play for something.”
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For the purposes of state playoff qualifiers, the IHSA requires that conferences play a minimum of five games.
“We’re making the best of a tough situation,” Ulreich said. “The biggest issue is having the schedule flexibility to find opponents for Week 3 and Week 9. Every year we are reevaluating.”
The elimination of the championship game emphasizes the five-game conference schedule.
“As a team, we have to take accountability for it and go into every week ready to play,” Gray said. “The DuPage Valley is a very competitive conference, and anybody can win at any point.”
After Williams suffered the hand injury in the DVC championship game, he missed the subsequent 8A playoff opener against Naperville Central. The RedHawks avenged a regular-season loss and beat the Huskies.
“Back to this previous format, I just feel like we can go out and set the tone and win our whole conference,” Williams said. “We shouldn’t have to fight back the way that we did last year.”
Patrick Z. McGavin is a freelance reporter for the Naperville Sun.