In the East Suburban Catholic Conference, the football discussion always seems to start with Joliet Catholic.
This year is no exception as the Hilltoppers have a star-studded backfield returning from last year's Class 5A state runner-up.
"It's as tough as it's ever been - but I think Joliet Catholic is the front-runner," said Benet coach Pat New, who took over after Gary Goforth retired after 22 years.
Especially with the Hilltoppers' ability to run the ball, which starts with Illinois recruit Josh Ferguson (1,596 yards, 22 touchdowns). Junior Malin Jones (1,286 yards, 22 TDs) and sophomore Ty Isaac are also dangerous threats.
Anthony Maddie, last year's starting quarterback, transferred to Aurora Christian. But the Hilltoppers have high hopes with basketball standout Breshion Tucker.
"Maybe after Joliet it's wide open where people wind up," said St. Patrick coach Dan Galante. "If you don't bring your 'A' game to each conference game you're going to be in trouble.
"I'd put Carmel and Marist up there based on what they've done."
Carmel shared last year's ESCC title with Joliet Catholic and opponents will have to contend with the dangerous triple option.
Senior quarterback Brian Serio and junior fullback Jordan Kos, the only all-ESCC sophomore selection, return. Speedy halfback Michael Panico's brother Santino led Libertyville to second place in Class 7A in 2003 and all-ESCC linebacker Luke Venegoni anchors the defense.
Marist finished second in 8A to Maine South and lost quarterback Mike Perish (3,385 yards, 37 TDs) to Western Michigan. But McKinley Moore (800 yards, 9 TDs) and Mike Skalitzky (460 yards, 11 TDs) return in the backfield and Ben Falloon (6 field goals, 38-yard punting average) is a big weapon.
Notre Dame has one of the ESCC's premier players in linebacker Jeremy Burgos (6-foot-3, 215 pounds). St. Viator lost league MVP and quarterback Julian Sipiora but looks to build around defensive end Anthony Pensa, linebacker Mike Krzoska and versatile Justin Johnson.
"It will be a meat-grinder," said Viator coach Chris Kirkpatrick. "Our kids are looking forward to it and are excited about the challenge and so am I."
Benet has three returning starters on each side of the ball and one of the league's biggest players in offensive lineman Pat Flavin (6-7, 245). The Division I prospect has about two dozen scholarship offers that include half of the Pac-10 and half of the Big Ten.
E.J. Howe rushed for 600 yards and 5 TDs behind Flavin last year and defensive lineman Jeff Schmittgens has offers from Eastern Illinois and Western Illinois.
Marian Catholic won its first six games last year en route to a 7-4 finish. Quarterback John Rhode and running back Jeruel Taylor return and the sophomore team went 8-1.
St. Patrick suffered some big graduation losses but has high hopes with all-ESCC center Michael Lucas (6-4, 295), running back Guy DiBalsamo, receiver Dennis Lemke, tight end Jim Kapolnek and junior quarterback Ryan Tentler running its shotgun spread offense.
"I certainly know people think we're depleted and the cupboard is empty and that's fine," Galante said. "We play that role really well.
"I think you're going see some teams step up nobody was thinking of. It's very feasible for our league to put six or seven teams in the playoffs."