Considering Brookfield Central had taken down Brookfield East in the regular season, Chikwe Obasih was feeling confident when he made a bet with Alec James over the outcome of the matchup between the two rivals in Level 2 of the WIAA Division 2 football playoffs last season.
"We had a bet at one of the hotels," Obasih said. "We had beat them pretty good. He kind of lost faith in them. Then, all of a sudden, we were surprised when East beat Central in the playoffs."
After six weeks of Obasih having bragging rights among the two Wisconsin Badgers defensive ends, James could gloat.
"He was happy all season," James said. "But then we beat them in the playoffs. I let him have his happiness and then I took it away from him."
Rivals from a young age
Dating as far back as middle school, Obasih and James -- now both key pieces of the University of Wisconsin defense -- were compared to each other.
It just so happened that two of the top prospects from Wisconsin in the class of 2013 resided in Brookfield.
While Obasih didn't play varsity football as a freshman at Brookfield Central, James was thrown right into the fire at Brookfield East. The two met on the prep football field three times, with James and Brookfield East winning two of three. Both players can remember the details of each meeting.
In 2010, Spartans quarterback Jon Lehman ran for a 37-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter to give Brookfield East a 14-10 win. Brookfield Central got revenge the following season with a 34-28 victory in overtime. With help from nine tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble from James, the Spartans cruised to a 37-14 win in the two players' senior season of 2012.
"They weren't that good of a team for a couple of years," Obasih said. "His class was really the class that brought Brookfield East to the top. Sophomore year is when they got a little bit better."
It didn't take long for Obasih and James to each draw significant interest from major college programs. Rivals.com ranked Obasih as the top 2013 recruit in the state of Wisconsin, while ESPN had James at the top of its list.
Obasih collected 101 tackles, 24 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks as a senior to finish his three-year Brookfield Central career with 223 tackles, 49 tackles for loss, 17 sacks and nine forced fumbles.
James made 97 tackles, 25 tackles for a loss, 12 sacks and forced four fumbles as a senior.
"Once we got to high school, we started to connect," James said. "He's always been a great player. I always remember going against him. He's always been good.
"I think he helped me a lot as a player. I remember working out thinking he was across the town doing the same thing. It always pushed me to help myself and elevate my game."
Obasih committed to Wisconsin in April of 2012, while James gave his verbal pledge to the Badgers in the summer but opened up his recruitment when Bret Bielema left for Arkansas. James eventually reaffirmed his commitment to Wisconsin, as then-head coach Gary Andersen was able to lure him from Michigan State, Oregon and Arkansas.
From rivals to teammates
The two players have had different levels of success since redshirting in 2013.
Obasih became a key cog on Wisconsin's defensive line as a redshirt freshman, starting seven of 14 games with 21 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks in 2014. He took the next step in 2015, starting all 13 games and earning honorable-mention All Big Ten honors from the media after recording 41 tackles, five tackles for a loss and one sack.
"I felt like I was more reliable than I was my freshman year," Obasih said. "Freshman year, I wanted to be steady and really just be one of those guys that was out there as one of 11. Last year, I felt I made the plays when they came to me. This year, I want to evolve even more and make the big plays that we need."
James has been a backup for each of the past two seasons, starting three of the 26 games he's played in at Wisconsin. He has 25 career tackles and recorded his lone career sack in the 2015 season opener against Alabama.
Both are expected to play major roles in new coordinator Justin Wilcox's defense. With Arthur Goldberg leaving the program in March due to multiple concussions, Obasih, James and junior Conor Sheehy enter fall camp as the top three defensive ends.
"I just want to be the best player I can and help the team in any way," James said. "I try to put the team before me. However I can help. As a defensive line as a whole, we have a lot more experience. Last year, it was our first time playing major amounts. Having that experience is big time. The sky is the limit for us."
Wilcox will use fall camp to evaluate his personnel, but he could rely more on defensive ends like Obasih and James to create pressure rather than the outside linebackers. That would be a significant change from former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's philosophy.
"A big part of what he's trying to do is make sure he knows what Sojourn (Shelton) can do, what Vince (Biegel) can do, what Sheehy, Chikwe and Alec can do," Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. "Then, he'll adjust the schemes off of the players. That's a very similar approach to what I believe in.
"I think he'll continue to find out who they are. It might be in a practice or it might be in Week 7. You are always gaining knowledge."
Remembering their roots
Although he didn't play for current Brookfield Central coach Jed Kennedy, Obasih has stayed connected to the Lancers program and was in attendance for the team's first practice of the season.
"Coach Kennedy is doing a great thing out there," Obasih said. "The program has taken a step forward. I still stay close with (former Brookfield Central coach Jamie) Meulemans. (Current Arrowhead defensive coordinator Sal) Logue was my defensive coordinator for two years. He was really a role model for me. I stay up to date with him at Arrowhead."
James also stays up to date with Brookfield East. His high school coach, Tom Swittel, retired after last season. Ben Farley, who was the defensive backs coach when James was in high school, is about to begin his first season in charge of the Spartans.
"If they would have asked me who I would have hired, it would have been (Farley)," James said. "They got someone who knows the program, and has been there when the success was there. I'm happy for him and happy for the whole program."