Hall and Princeton have a long, storied rivalry on the football field dating back to the past decades in the NCIC and the present decade in the Three Rivers Conference.
But only twice before has there been as much on the line as there will be when the rivals meet Saturday in Spring Valley.
If you’ve been around as long as I have following Bureau County football, you know Saturday’s game in Spring Valley is going to be pretty special, something the players have never experienced before.
The memory perhaps that stands out to all those who experienced those past playoff clashes was the size of the crowd with an equal sea of red on the home sidelines as there was of blue on the visitors sidelines, and spilling over into the end zones.
The atmosphere was electric as both sides cheered on their boys.
“It was the best game that I had ever played in,” said Rich Vanaman, a junior lineman for the 1993 Red Devils. “The atmosphere was electric, the stadium was packed, and it was snowing. It was a lot of fun.”
Greg Crowther, a 1993 Hall senior captain, said he heard reports of 4,000 people at that game.
“I don’t know if it was true. I’ve never seen that many people at Hall ever. Seems all of Princeton and all of Spring Valley were there,” he said.
“The stands were full, and spectators were standing along the perimeter of the field. Playoff football against your arch-rival, hostile crowd, great weather; couldn’t ask for a better environment to play in,” said Kristian Wahlgren, a member of the 1993 Tigers, now stationed with the Navy in San Diego.
The 1989 players have similar memories.
“It was the most people I’ve ever seen at a Hall football game. No idea how many were there, but it was packed. The end zones were full of people,” Hall basketball coach Mike Filippini, a senior on the ‘89 team, said.
There were also big plays, defining moments in each game that remain vividly etched in the minds of the players who made them, some haunting memories to others — Kipp Wahlgren’s late sack for the Tigers in 1989 and a costly fumble and a roughing the punter penalty by Princeton early in ’93 that proved to be momentum swingers.
“Both games were great rivalry games,” said Gary Vicini, who coached both Red Devil teams.
Enjoy the moment
The Tigers and Red Devils of yesteryear tell their present-day players to enjoy the moment when they step on the field Saturday.
“Saturday will be something both teams will never forget,” said Scott Hard, a ’93 Tiger.
“This is the type of game these young men will remember,” said Eric Waca, Hard’s teammate.
“In retrospect, that was the biggest stage we’d played on in our young careers,” said Mike Suarez, a senior from DePue, who played for Hall in ’89.
Todd Gibson has an unique perspective having played in the 1993 game for Princeton and now getting to watch his son, Tyler, quarterback this year’s Tigers.
“As a dad, I get to witness the community backing more with people stopping me at gas stations and on the street to talk about the game,” Gibson said. “But, I’ve got to say it’s much more nerve-racking watching your son play than it is playing.”
1989 second-round playoffs:
Princeton 13, Hall 7
Tiger Style was running wild in 1989, the team motto coined by line coach Steve Kiser that took the town by storm.
The Tigers won their first six games of the year, including shutout wins over Rockridge (36-0) and Marquette (20-0) and Kewanee (29-0). They also beat Hall 14-7 before falling to Rochelle in Week 7, 26-14.
Wins over Mendota and Canton sent the Tigers into the playoffs at 8-1, defeating Yorkville 40-21 in first-round play.
The 1989 season brought new beginnings for Hall, forming a co-op with neighbor DePue and brought such stalwarts as Mike Suarez, Larry Olivares and Dave Marquez into the fold.
“Personally, the ’89 season was an awakening. New teammates, new system, conference and roles for us DePue kids,” said Suarez, who would go on to play for the University of Illinois and NFL Europe.
“The NCIC posed a really cool challenge. We, otherwise, would have never faced Princeton in football, playing in DePue.”
In the regular-season battle at Nesti Stadium, Tiger linebacker Kirk Stevens stopped Hall running back Kenny Welgatt in his tracks on fourth down at the goal line to preserve the Tigers’ 14-7 win.
In a play that the late PHS coach Randy Swinford described at the time as “ridiculously similar,” Tiger DB Kipp Wahlgren sacked Hall quarterback Mike Ziel on fourth down late in the game.
Sean Schickel, the Tigers’ bruising fullback, said the picture that I captured of that play showing Wahlgren rising and “putting his #1’s” in the air, “says it all.”
It was the Tigers’ 46-tight blitz package called by Swinford.
“He came from nowhere and just pasted Ziel. It was the play of the game as far as I’m concerned,” Swinford said that day.
Wahlgren, who said he blitzes from the outside while teammate Erik Sorenson comes from the inside, confessed 46-tight had never worked before.
“Most of the time I get blocked or they run it. That’s the first sack I’ve got in my life,” Wahlgren said.
Schickel scored the game-winning touchdown for the Tigers on fourth down from the Hall 3 on a pitch, dodging a lunging Ziel and tip-toeing in front of the goal line marker a step ahead of Hall’s Brian Huston.
“We (Hall) came up short that afternoon, but you’ll find us reuniting about that game instead of boasting to the shutouts and impressive wins that season,” Suarez said. “I believe Princeton finished state runner-up, and it easily could have been us. But that’s why you have to play the games.”
John Tucker gave the Tigers a 7-0 lead on a 34-yard romp with 10 1/2 minutes left in the first half. It capped an eight-play, 69-yard drive.
Larry Olivares of DePue, who only came out for football at the encouragement of a family friend, answered right back for Hall. He picked off a PHS pass at the Tiger 30 and two plays later hauled in a 30-yard TD strike from Ziel, who added the PAT to tie the game at 7-7 with 7:16 left in the half.
Suarez said beloved Hall line coach Steve Smith, who still oversees the Hog Soldiers today, had his troops fired up to play.
“Coach Smith especially treated that game as the red-letter, granddaddy of them all. He wanted white knuckles, hat on a hat football and go to win in the trenches,” said Suarez, who lives in Noblesville, Ind. with his family of four.
1993 second-round playoffs: Hall 21, Princeton 13
Another large crowd greeted both teams at Nesti Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 6 for a second, second-round playoff match up between the Red Devils and Tigers.
It was ideal “football weather” with a chill in the air and snow on the ground.
The Red Devils had won the regular-season game 19-8.
Hall fans came prepared for the Tigers, seizing the moment to make fun of Princeton at their own expense.
In the preseason, PHS made promotional posters featuring its senior players under the waterfall at Starved Rock with the caption, “We will rock you.”
“To me it was pretty exciting,” Todd Gibson said of the posters. “So then we show up to Hall and I will never forget that they had a banner stretched all the way across the top of their bleachers that said, ‘Who will rock who!’ Looking back on it, I give the Hall fans props on that.”
The Red Devils indeed rocked the Tigers early on with a game-changing fumble recovery.
In its first possession, Princeton marched 62 yards in nine plays to the Hall 8-yard line. However, the Tigers’ drive stalled on a fumbled pitch that Hall’s Gary Pinter recovered.
Hall’s Jason Turigiliatti said the fumble recovery gave the Red Devils a huge boost.
“When they’re driving it down, it kind of lowered (our spirits) down. Once they fumbled it, it just changed (the momentum) all around,” he said.
PHS co-captain Kristian Wahlgen said it put the Tigers in shock.
“I can say it now that the game is over, but I didn’t want to say it then,” he said. “When we didn’t score, I think it just put us in shock. If we would have scored, we’d have the lead, we’d have the edge, we’d have the momentum. I think the whole game could have been turned around. We could be the ones going on.”
Another error proved costly for the Tigers when they were called for a roughing the punter penalty on Crowther.
Red Devil quarterback Jeff Hilty later scored on a 1-yard run on the first play of the second quarter. He added a 3-yard keeper just over six minutes later with the Red Devils going up 14-0 on PATs by Kyle Roach.
“I just look for the end zone, look for a hole and go right to it,” Hilty said.
The Tigers mounted a nine-play, 70-yard scoring drive, capped by a 22-yard TD by Wahlgren. Scott Reed’s PAT made it 14-7 with 1:49 left in the half.
Dan Englehaupt’s 29-yard punt return set up a 4-yard run to put the Red Devils up 21-7 with 4:31 left in the third quarter.
Princeton scored one more time when Hard rambled 17 yards after catching a pass from Forristall. The PAT missed, and Hall led 21-13.