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PETALUMA — Hank Wickley might have to rethink his future holiday plans.

The Casa Grande senior and goalie on the Gauchos’ lacrosse team spent last Thanksgiving with a pal who plays for the reigning North Bay League champion Petaluma High lacrosse squad. After the Gauchos beat the Trojans on April 1 to take sole possession of first place in the North Bay League, Wickley might need to find his turkey and stuffing elsewhere.

But he and the other Gauchos will certainly take the win.

“It was definitely one of our biggest games so far this season,” he said. “It was a good win for us. We really came together.”

The Gauchos are now 12-3 overall and 5-0 in league play heading into Friday's matchup with Cardinal Newman.

And just around the corner is round two, “The Battle for the Paddle.” The crosstown rivals meet for the second time Tuesday to determine who is the best squad in town.

And if that’s not enough, consider this: These guys are all friends.

The Gauchos and the Trojans have grown up playing club lacrosse together, primarily for the Petaluma River Cats.

“I’ve been playing against the Petaluma guys my whole life, basically, since third grade,” Gauchos’ senior attacker Tommy Buickerood said. “We grew up playing together, travel teams, you name it. So it’s a lot of fun to play against the guys. We’re enemies on the field during that time but after, it’s all good. We’re still friends.”

And that friendship adds a layer of intensity to the rivalry.

“We play together during the summer and against each other,” Wickley said. “I think that makes it a little bit sweeter when we win.”

Casa coach Ben Hewitt was tempered about the win, reminding me that the Trojans bested the Gauchos in two outings last year. And as such, the Paddle — the trophy between the two squads traded on the final meeting of the season — still resides at the Petaluma High campus on the west side of town.

“They are still kind of the team to beat. They are,” he said. “It’s going to be very hard the next time we play them. They are a very good team.”

The Trojans are 9-4 overall and 3-1 in league heading into Friday's matchup with Rancho.

But that doesn’t mean Hewitt isn’t looking forward to Tuesday’s Battle for the Paddle, too.

“For both of us, it’s our favorite game of the year,” he said. “Both teams really push each other to get better. Because we have the rivalry with Petaluma, it’s a huge benefit to us. We are both pushing for the same thing.”

“It’s a rivalry that benefits the players, it really benefits the town. It’s exciting,” Hewitt said.

Despite North Bay League lacrosse being in only its second year, the crosstown rivalry between Casa and Petaluma goes back further in time.

Add to it the familiarity the players and coaches feel with each other, and there is a sure will to win.

“It’s another thing about bragging rights,” Buickerood said. “It’s a huge event.”

And that’s a big deal for a sport that wasn’t CIF-sanctioned until last year and existed only at the club level at both campuses. More people are coming to Gauchos games, more people are stopping Gauchos players in class and asking about the wins.

“We would stay with the same pride in our team, regardless, but it’s kind of cool to know that people will come up to us at school and ask about the game,” Wickley said. “It almost makes you want to do better because people know about it.”

The Battle of the Paddle is at Casa’s house this Tuesday and is likely to draw the biggest fan turnout of the season. And some folks are so intertwined with both teams that they can’t decide which side to sit on or which team to cheer for.

“A lot of them go both ways,” Buickerood said.

I guess that makes everyone a winner.

But Buickerood and Wickley said the excitement — and the pressure — are no joke.

It’s bragging rights for a whole town, east versus west. With a trophy with school name and year engraved on it, no less.

“The thing that separates Petaluma is the river, so it’s the paddle,” Wickley explained.

But Hewitt was sure to say that as fun as the heat on the field is, it’s good times afterward — no matter what. He’s been on both sides, after all.

“They are all actually really good friends. That makes it great,” Hewitt said. “They really get after each other but afterwards you will see no greater display of sportsmanship than after the games are over. You do the handshakes, but you will see them giving each other hugs.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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