Zach Garrett and North Central College are on the doorstep of making history.
On Friday, the Cardinals and the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater will vie for the Division III football national title, the Stagg Bowl, in Texas.
For North Central, it's the first time in program history. For Whitewater, Friday's game at Woodforest Bank Stadium in Shenandoah, Texas, will be for the program's seventh national championship.
The programs have played each other twice before, both playoff games going to the Warhawks.
Garrett, a North Central redshirt junior, has football roots that run back just 16 miles to Batavia High School. A two-year varsity starter at running back, Garrett was a team captain his senior season before graduating in 2016.
His time at Batavia "definitely helped [him] a ton" in preparing to be a successful player at the next level.
"Going from one winning program to another, you kind of just get the right philosophies and mindset to play at the next level," Garrett said. "The high school coaches...the whole staff really [tells] you how important it is to work hard."
"They're really big on the lifting program, running and all that stuff," Garrett said. "It definitely helped transition [to] my freshman year for sure."
Garrett suffered a torn right ACL during the spring of his freshman year. He missed his entire sophomore season before returning as a junior. This year Garrett has 333 rushing yards on 67 attempts for five touchdowns. Garrett also sees ample time on special teams.
Other Batavia alumni on the current team include junior tight end Dana Anderson and freshman offensive lineman Derek Bex. The Batavia-North Central connection runs deep. Batavia coach Dennis Piron and defensive coordinator Matt Holm are also graduates and former players at NCC.
The Cardinals feature some elite talent, headlined by wideout Andrew Kamienski and quarterback Broc Rutter, a Neuqua Valley graduate. Rutter is the program's all-time leader with 998 completions, 1,476 attempts, 14,002 passing yards and 138 touchdown passes.
Kamienski caught four touchdowns last week in a win over fourth-ranked Muhlenberg, elevating his total to 30 – a new Division III single-season record. Kamienski also leads all DIII programs with 1,882 receiving yards and 124 receptions.
Whitewater will feature former St. Charles North defensive back and 2019 Kane County Chronicle Baseball Player of the Year, Egon Hein. As a freshman, Hein has 24 total tackles and one interception while rotating at safety and occasionally linebacker.
"Just to find the field, whether its on specials or defense, is really an honor to me, especially being a freshman," Hein texted. "Most of the guys next to me are older and have more experience, so it says a lot being one of the only young guys out there."
In the last year, Hein has played in a championship in each sport he's played in. Hein played in the Class 7A state football final last fall and the Class 4A state baseball championship game in June, and now will likely appear in the D3 title game Friday.
"Playing in three championship games over the past year has truly been an incredible experience," Hein said. "I’ve worked so hard for so long to get to this point and it’s finally starting to pay off."
Hein says playing at St. Charles North prepared him by competing with "some of the best athletes in the state of Illinois."
"I had the pleasure to be on two state caliber teams with guys like Tyler Nubin, Alec Kritta, and Nick DeMarco. Everyday was a competition going against those guys, whether it was on the football field or baseball diamond," Hein said.
"Both the baseball and football coaching staffs helped me become the athlete i am today. [Their] constant pushing me to be better and drive to help me really helped shape me as an athlete."