A changing of the guard could be in store for the Valley Division of the Fox Valley Conference, but not until the main challenger proves it can finally dethrone the longtime king.
Cary-Grove, winner of the 2009 Class 6A state title, enters this season as a six-time outright champion in the FVC. That remarkable run includes winning every Valley title since the league expanded in 2006 and moved to a two-division format. The Trojans have won 38 straight conference games dating back to Week 9 of the 2003 season.
However, Cary-Grove returns starters at only three of 22 positions. Will a junior class that went 9-0 on the sophomore level be enough to offset massive graduation losses? Or will this be the year the league's perennial bridesmaid becomes the bride?
Crystal Lake South, which has finished in second place every year since 2003, is poised to give rival Cary-Grove a run for its money. The Gators return the most experienced talent in the Valley FVC.
How successful a season CL South enjoys could hinge on an intangible, namely, how well this team transitions to its new head coach. Of course, the new guy's hardly a stranger.
Chuck Ahsmann, the team's defensive coordinator for the past 10 seasons, took over in the wake of the June resignation of former coach Jim Stuglis, the most successful football coach in CL South history. Stuglis' teams qualified for the playoffs the last nine consecutive seasons, yet he was never able to win an FVC title.
Ahsmann, who lauded his senior leaders for their ability to roll with the punches throughout the coaching transition, may have inherited a team with enough talent to break through for the school's third FVC football title and first since 1984.
The CL South offense is led by a massive, mostly experienced line. Vanderbilt recruit Jake Bernstein (6-4, 280 pounds) and Bowling Green recruit Fahn Cooper (6-6, 300) are huge, athletic bookend tackles, and senior guard Phil Hespen (6-4, 290) adds to the protection for third-year quarterback Drew Ormseth.
Junior linebacker Steve Forner (23.5 tackles) and senior defensive end Brett Barchard (24) return to anchor a defense that lacks experience in some positions but not speed or athleticism.
"Our expectations are always high," Ahsmann said. "We'd like to battle for the conference title. We've been right there a couple years with Cary, and we're certainly hoping we can knock them off one of these years."
Cary-Grove has dominated the regular-season meetings against the Gators since 2004, winning the last six straight. But the Gators took revenge in the playoffs twice, when they made semifinal appearances in 2005 and 2008. The rivals square off in Week 8 in Crystal Lake.
"South is still extremely talented," Cary-Grove coach Bruce Kay said. "Their lower levels have been very good for years and they have a lot of their assistants back, so we expect South to be good.
"We expect Jacobs will be improved, and Huntley has some players. We saw McHenry in seven-on-seven and they look good. They've got another 6-foot-2 (quarterback) throwing it all over the place and some other fast guys, so they look good. It'll be a real tough league."
McHenry returns five starters on offense, including wide receivers Corey Szamlewski and Tyler Borter. Free safety Joe Krieg is the lone defensive returnee for the Warriors, who finished third in the Valley in 2009 but came the closest to beating Cary-Grove before dropping a 31-28 decision. CL South graduate Kevin Brockway will be the offensive coordinator this season, McHenry coach Tim Beagle said. In fact, Cary-Grove is chasing McHenry's record for most FVC wins in a row. The Trojans now stand at 38 straight since 2003 and can break the record in Week 7 when they play at McHenry, assuming they beat Jacobs and Huntley in their first two Valley games.
In addition to Ahsmann, the Valley welcomes two other new coaches: Bill Mitz at Jacobs and Matt Gehrig at Huntley.
An IHSFCA hall-of-famer who retired from Stevenson last year, the 55-year-old Mitz attempts to elevate Jacobs to a consistent high level of play as the program strives to improve on its five playoff appearances and one FVC title since 1978.
Jacobs returns three all-FVC performers, the most of any team in the FVC: junior quarterback Jason Judson, junior defensive back Caz Zyks and senior tight end Paul Ehrlich.
"I don't know what everyone has coming back, but I know what I have," Mitz said, optimism in his voice. "I guess you have to go with the champion until they get knocked off, at least that's the way I look at it. I know South is going to be very good."
Gehrig, whose teams finished 9-9 in two seasons at Larkin, takes over a Huntley program coming off consecutive playoff appearances for the first time in school history. Speedy senior quarterback Tim Lycos returns to lead the offense, and the Red Raiders will count on senior Brandon Gaston in the trenches on both sides of the ball.
"From what I saw on films of Crystal Lake South from last year, they've got the horses up front on both sides that I don't know if anyone else has," Gehrig said. "And they've got a third-year quarterback. But Cary will be good. They've both been very good for a number of years and they'll both be very good this year.
"McHenry's got kids who can play, and Jacobs is improved. You don't get too many weeks off."
Dundee-Crown coach Mike Davis said his team "will definitely be better than last year," when the Chargers finished 1-8. The seventh-year coach believes his returning players at the skill positions are the most talented group he's coached at D-C.
In seven games as a junior, quarterback Tanner Kotlan threw for 1,101 yards and 11 touchdowns. Zigzagging senior running back Danny Sharp also returns. He led the Chargers in rushing (70 carries, 525 yards, 4 TD) and was second in receiving (28 rec., 360 yards, 3 TD).