VALPARAISO — Four years ago, Frank Catrine was a senior at Bishop Fenwick High School in southwest Ohio. Among the schools recruiting the Springboro resident were nearby Dayton, a I-AA football power, and Valparaiso, another Pioneer League school at the other end of the chain of success.
Standing the schools side by side, people might have wondered why Catrine chose the latter, but he saw something he liked in Dave Cecchini to take what the then-new Crusaders coach called a big leap of faith in coming to Valpo. As Catrine prepares for his final collegiate game Saturday, against, of all teams, Dayton, the running back turned receiver doesn't doubt for a second that he picked correctly.
"It's a night and day difference," Catrine said after practice Tuesday. "Being part of the first class, seeing where we've come, the mentality the team has, the culture that's been developed, the community... This week, I was walking around with Valpo stuff on and people said, hey, great win against Butler. Nobody even knew we had a football team before. It's a testament to the coaches and the players."
Valpo's 36-28 Hoosier Helmet win over the host Bulldogs was the biggest of the Cecchini era, putting the Crusaders on the brink of another milestone in a season of many. The fifth win is their most since 2007. The fourth league win is their most in 49 years. At 5-5, they have a chance to finish above .500, something Valpo last did in 2003. That also happens to be last time it beat Dayton.
"A win would mean a lot for the program," redshirt senior defensive back J.J. Nunes said. "I was here with the old coaching staff for a year. Coach 'Cecc' brought in his guys and it's been awesome to have coaches who cared, who push you to get better. That's been the main difference. I'm glad I saw it through."
Nunes was a freshman on the 2013 team that lost 72-12 to Butler and went 1-10. That sure seems like more than four calendars ago for the nine seniors still in the program.
"It’s an outstanding group of young men," Cecchini said. "There's a special bond with the first group. We're so proud of them and the success they've had. Without question, we've made great strides. To send the seniors out with a victory, to recognize their achievements, it would be a huge statement."
The Flyers stand in the way of a Valpo's season exclamation point. A deceptive 5-5, they lost three games minus quarterback Alex Jeske and are 4-1 since his return.
"It's a huge opportunity and a huge challenge, coming off Butler, a game that attracts so much attention," Cecchini said. "It was so emotional. We need to get refocused and ready to go for Dayton. It would be very easy to look at all the records, 2003, this and that. It's a huge game for the program and the players recognize that."
Nunes and Catrine are two-year captains hoping for their fifth consecutive Brown Field "W." It's also a chance to post four league victories in a season on home turf for the first time.
"I thank the coaches and the players for letting me lead the team," Nunes said. "All you can ask for in life is the opportunity to help make something great. It's going to be left in great hands. They're going to be good for years. They're going to be champions one of these days."
The Dayton connection only adds to the significance of the game for Catrine.
"It would mean the world to us, to the seniors," Catrine said. "Personally, beating Dayton would leave a mark on my career that I would never forget. When I came here, I fell in love with the place. The people I've met here, my teammates, they're brothers for the rest of my life. People just see the stats, the standings. Those are things you can't take away."
With 17 starters returning, the future for Valpo football may be brighter than it's ever been. While a loss isn't going to derail the momentum, a win would certainly accelerate it, like the 42-39 victory over Jacksonville that capped 2016. Not to mention how much better 6-5 sounds than 5-6.
"It makes you more excited about looking ahead," Cecchini said. "There's been a very low bar of expectations here. Our goal is to consistently be among the top teams in the league, and Dayton's the next natural step."