Delta lineman Kaleb Slaven can still rattle off how his teams fared against Anthony Todd.
You would expect him to know the record when the two were in high school, as Todd’s Yorktown Tigers are Delta’s top rival. But Slaven can go farther back, running off the outcomes of third- and fourth-grade games (Slaven’s squad won both).
At that age they were foes, then teammates for a couple years on the Metro League Mustangs All-Star team, then back to foes again, a Tiger and Eagle seemingly facing off on an annual basis. Soon enough, they’ll be teammates once more as Ball State Cardinals, and that fact puts all the more meaning into Friday’s game.
It’ll be the last time they line up as opponents in their athletic careers.
“It’s kind of bittersweet,” Slaven said. “But growing up and playing forever, I want to get the win just so I can say, ‘Last time we played you, I got to be the one that got the victory.’
“It should be fun.”
Todd echoed the sentiment, adding there’s a sort of mutual respect of games that comes along with their friendship. They’ve walked onto a lot of fields where they’re the biggest players and among the most talented, and there’s always something special about locking up with a counterpart that gives you a run for your money.
Slaven said if you go far enough down the family tree, they are actually some kind of cousins.
“We always joke around during this week,” Todd said. “It’s always a fun week to go up against Kaleb because it’s always fun to play someone who you know is good, someone who is going to play at the same level as you.”
“Once Friday comes, we may be more serious than we usually would be. But afterward it’s always back to being good friends.”
Their games have a certain contrast that makes a potential matchup even more interesting. Todd is thick, hard to move with a low center of gravity (he’s 6-foot-4, 305 pounds). Moving to center this season, he’s a ballast in the heart of the line, and will likely face off with Slaven if he mans the middle.
And Slaven, he’s a different sort at 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, with a narrower build that allows him to get through gaps in a different way.
“He’s very athletic,” Todd said. “That’s what Kaleb is known for, being an athletic big guy. So he’s fast, he gets off the ball, he knows what he’s doing. It’s a challenge, but it’s always a challenge I’m ready for.
“He’s taller, so that he has longer arms so he can get his arms on you before you get him.”
Todd actually played a role in Slaven finding his way to Ball State. The Delta lineman held an offer from Cincinnati and interest from Indiana.
But two players from the cross-county rival, Todd and ex-Yorktown quarterback/current Cardinals No. 2 Riley Neal, made their case.
“He was always after me saying, come on man, we’ve got to do this,” Slaven said. “We want you at Ball State. Him and Riley (Neal), we’re all good buddies. We all put it together.”
And now, these two towering players face off for a final time in a rivalry fraught with history and meaning.
Slaven and Todd both agreed this week is one that needs no extra hype, no real build-up. It’s most likely the county’s biggest game each season, one that gets circled on the calendar and it doesn’t matter if teams are 3-0 or 0-3.
“I don’t think you even have to talk about the rivalry because it’s just in-born in our kids and their kids,” Tigers coach Mike Wilhelm said. “The jacked up part is already there.”
Delta coach Grant Zgunda is as much an expert on the rivalry as anyone. He played for Yorktown in the mid-80s and coached Delta since 1998.
He’s been at places without a natural rival and that only strengthened his feelings on what these schools have in their little corner of the state. .
“I’ve been through it all,” Zgunda said. “I played there and it was huge, and we went through a phase where everybody was trying to tone down the rivalry. And it’s like, it’s fun. If you don’t have a rival, how sad is that?”
He recalled waking up his first season as head coach of the Eagles. Earlier in the week, he’d raked up about 30 bags of leaves and set them out to get picked up.
He walked out the door to find his car buried in those leaves, so thoroughly only the top of the antenna peaked out over the top of the pile.
“I laughed about it,” he said. “Drove down the road and leaves were blowing off.”
He sees similarities in the teams this season. The Tigers switched to a more run-based offense, and both squads are young after losing large and productive senior classes. The Tigers have won the last three in the series, including ending Delta’s season in the sectional title game, and that memory still sticks with the Eagles.
Many of those younger players will have another go-round for Delta-Yorktown week, but this is the last run for Slaven and Todd. Soon enough they’ll be teammates, but for now they get to indulge in the longstanding tradition they’re already a part of.
“It’s a little weird,” Todd said. “They always say you’re counting down the days. It’s the last time I’ll ever play Delta. For Yorktown, this is one of the biggest weeks of the year. Everybody at Yorktown looks forward for Delta week and everybody at Delta looks forward for Yorktown week.
“I’m ready to make the most of it.”
Contact sports writer Ben Breiner at 213-5848. Follow him on Twitter @BenBreinerTSP.
Friday’s ECI Games
Richmond at Central, 7 p.m.
Union City at Monroe Central, 7:30 p.m.
Wes-Del at Tri, 7 p.m.
Yorktown at Delta, 7:30 p.m.
Winchester at Union County, 7 p.m.
Adams Central at Jay County, 7 p.m.
Mississinewa at Blackford, 7 p.m
Shelbyville at New Castle, 7:30 p.m.