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Spend a decade covering high school sports and you come to learn the difference between a good team and a team with a chance to be special.
It's the eye test, an assessment that can't be substituted by statistical review or coach and player interviews. A team either has it or doesn't. You just know it when you see it.
Last year, two teams in the Fox Valley area passed the eye test with flying colors, both from Cary-Grove High School.
After seeing the Cary-Grove football team decimate another opponent in Week 5, I came back to the office and fired off an e-mail to our Top 20 guru, Marty Maciaszek. Though the season had a long way to go at that point, I told Marty I'd just seen a state champion.
That was the way it eventually turned out.
A few weeks later, after watching the Cary-Grove volleyball team roll through sectional play and win a supersectional on defending champion St. Charles East's home court, I returned to the newsroom and told Fox Valley sports editor John Radtke the Trojans were going to win it all regardless of the brutal competition they would face downstate because they had "it."
That was the way it eventually turned out.
I'll never be mistaken for Einstein, folks, but I have eyes. Lately, these eyes have been bugging out after watching the explosive South Elgin football team.
Class 8A football in Illinois is ultra competitive - and let's face it, it's only Week 3 - so it's too early to make a similar call concerning the Storm just yet. But through the first two weeks of the 2010 season this team has certainly passed one man's eye test and seems destined for a special season.
After beating 2009 Class 7A quarterfinalist St. Charles North and 2009 Class 4A champion Metamora by a combined score of 101-39, South Elgin has positioned itself as contender in Class 8A in its fifth season of varsity competition.
And let me say this to those eager to criticize South Elgin for scheduling Metamora, a school with roughly one-third the number of students: Pat Ryan's Redbirds are one of the most well-coached programs in the state, and they pass the eye test, too. You're kidding yourself if you don't think Metamora would beat plenty of 7A or 8A teams from this area. They would. Badly. We'll be hearing more about that fantastic team as the season goes on.
Metamora's tricky option offense, operated by a couple of bona fide all-state candidates, gave the South Elgin defense some trouble, but trouble is what South Elgin wanted from a perennial contender like the Redbirds when it was forced last April to find a late replacement for an open date.
To its credit, Metamora volunteered to play bigger South Elgin. The Storm didn't go looking for a smaller school to beat up. Besides, South Elgin is used to playing tough teams. The Storm went 7-2 in the 2009 regular season against one of the toughest schedules in 7A, which included matchups against six eventual playoff teams and a Larkin squad that went 5-4 but missed the postseason on points.
South Elgin has clearly improved in 2010. It's a team with speed, skill, toughness, strength, depth and a winner's mentality. Others around the state clearly feel the same way; The Storm enter this Saturday's Upstate Eight Conference (Valley Division) opener against visiting Lake Park ranked No. 9 in the latest Associated Press poll.
"I'm thrilled considering where the program started," senior linebacker Justin Wright said of the recognition. "In the beginning we didn't even have our own place to practice. Five years later we're one of the better teams in the area. It's great."
Wright makes a good point. The South Elgin program wasn't built overnight. In fact, those first three years were more difficult than coach Dale Schabert expected when he left Larkin after 10 seasons to direct the football program at the fifth high school in Elgin Area School District U-46. The Storm went 0-9 in their inaugural season in 2006 and finished 3-6 in both 2007 and 2008.
"You first come over here and you're thinking new building, new equipment, new field - it's all going to be perfect," Schabert said. "But it was kind of like the movie "Brewster's Millions," where you're spending 10 million to get 50 million. You eventually get tired of buying new stuff. It was all just new, and I thought it would be a lot easier than it was.
"But you don't realize you've got kids coming from four different high schools and you have to build the culture, the atmosphere and the pride of a new school. It was a process I wasn't ready for."
Schabert credited the school's administration for building said culture, which he said began with academics and filtered down through every department in the high school, including athletics.
He concedes it also took some talented athletes to put the program on the map, two classes of which now populate the roster of one of the best teams in the suburbs.
In 2009, the varsity was flooded with a junior class dripping with talent and hungry to win. Juniors won several position battles and brought a dynamic style of play to the field. It was a deep array of promising talent: Wright, a bruising hitter; defensive tackle Jake Randich, a transfer from Driscoll who benches over 400 pounds and squats 460; quarterback John Menken, who gained all-area honors in football and baseball last year; Derek Hurschman, who played defensive end and tight end; wide receiver/safety Domico Failla (6-foot-4); speedy, punishing linebacker Dillon Gardner; ubiquitous defensive end Andre York, whose motor is stuck in high gear; and second-year running back Brad Birchfield, among many others.
Those players are now experienced seniors.
"They're really the first senior group we've had with really strong leadership," Schabert said. "When they came into the building they started winning in baseball, winning in basketball, winning in wrestling, winning in football. They all support each other and it carries over."
The seniors have been joined by a junior class arguably as talented. Zack Gross plays safety and would probably start at quarterback in most programs. Three junior linemen have fortified the offensive line. And then there's Adolfo Pacheco (6-0, 210), who is just an absolute beast of a ball carrier.
A versatile offensive weapon, Pacheco has been a revelation through South Elgin's first two games. He broke the school rushing record with 233 yards in his first varsity game. He followed that up last week by often lining up in the slot, where he made 5 receptions for 127 yards and a touchdown.
"He doesn't go down with one hit," senior guard John Murillo said. "He breaks a lot of tackles and he's fast."
The addition of Pacheco to Menken, Birchfield, and receivers Failla and Kenny Lowden (6-5) makes the South Elgin offense a downright volatile mixture.
"That's the fab five right there," said Hurschman, who mostly plays defense this season. "We'll be sitting down and all the sudden you hear the crowd going crazy. You look up and say, 'Oh, another big play by the offense.' It's incredible to watch what those guys can do. They're outstanding."
Time will tell how far South Elgin goes this season. Injuries will play a role like they do with every football team, but this squad seems to have the depth to cope with a few key injuries better than most. This team isn't cocky, but the players are confident in what they may be able to accomplish come November.
Said Randich: "Everybody's clicking over here. It feels like it did when I was at Driscoll. It's really not that much different."
"As long as we keep working hard every day I think we can go as far as we want to," Wright said. "The sky's the limit for this team."
So skip the optometrist appointment, fans. A more intriguing eye test awaits at Millennium Field.