Tight conference races are always healthy. The Upstate Eight Conference's two divisions seem pretty healthy.
"Our side of the conference, it's total parity," said Lake Park coach Chris Roll, in his first year as head coach of the Lancers in the UEC Valley Division.
"I see it as pretty even," echoed St. Charles North coach Mark Gould of the UEC River.
Aside from possibly low-numbered Larkin in the River and the Valley's perpetually challenged East Aurora, each of the UEC's 14 teams could make a statement either as divisional contender or as a spoiler. And even Larkin returns three-year starting quarterback Kyle Newquist, who in 2010 passed for 1,586 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Bartlett, though, returns the most from last year's co-championship, with Waubonsie Valley, in the UEC Valley.
Tom Meaney's Hawks, who shared identical 8-3 overall and 5-1 league records with Waubonsie, bring back the all-Valley passing combo of Air Force-bound quarterback A.J. Bilyeu and receiver Zach Karys, plus two all-conference linebackers, Mike Partyka and Kevin Kirchhoff.
Probably the UEC's most physical team since the program's inception in 1998, Bartlett figures to be well stocked on both lines and also returns fullback Nate Massey and tailback Nate Odisho.
Waubonsie coach Paul Murphy said: "Bartlett has the most coming back, and they were all excited this summer. They thought they could win a state title."
That remains to be seen. The Hawks first must navigate a grueling schedule. Aside from Valley foes it includes DuPage Valley contender Wheaton North and playoff hopefuls Elgin and Batavia from the UEC River.
Also, Bartlett will vie with Waubonsie Valley and Neuqua Valley in its own division. Both are speed-based clubs that offer slashing junior running backs who figure to reach big numbers after successful sophomore years -- Waubonsie's Austin Guido and Neuqua's Joey Rhattigan.
Neuqua Valley also returns a defensive lineman, Michael Ippolito, who will challenge Partyka and others such as Metea Valley's Donovan Rowsey and South Elgin's Zach Marotta for title of Valley defensive player of the year.
"They're going to be tough games, but by the time we get down to Week 8, 9, I hope they're conference championship games for us," said Neuqua coach Bryan Wells, whose last three games are Waubonsie, Bartlett and retooling Lake Park.
Returning a pair of 275-pound all-Valley offensive linemen in Jonathan Slania and Christian Guerrero, South Elgin can't be denied. Metea Valley may be the most interesting UEC team to watch, returning 22 starting positions and players determined to reverse last season's 1-8 varsity debut.
"Ted (Monken) knows how to build a program," Roll said. "They could blow past everyone."
One of the nicest stories of 2010, the first year of the expanded, two-division UEC, was that of Elgin. Dave Bierman's Maroons beat St. Charles North and St. Charles East and claimed their first playoff slot since 2001.
Elgin graduated UEC River defensive player of the year Jordan Dean but returns all-conference players Travann Hall, Dennis Moore and Elrich Keophilalay. The latter two will be two-way athletes, as will returnees Derek Moorman and Devin Gilliam.
Streamwood could be the Elgin-like upstart of 2011. In addition to solid linemen the Sabres return key players at each of the offensive skilled positions in quarterback Dalton Lundeen, receiver Blake Holder and Alex Morrow, a thunder-thighed back who ran for a school-record 300 yards against Dundee-Crown last season.
"Not many runts in this conference, that's for sure," Bierman said.
For sure. That includes the team coached by his former Northern Illinois University roommate -- they also share a March 8 birthday -- Geneva's Rob Wicinski.
While Elgin and Streamwood will vie for the top half with the likes of St. Charles North and St. Charles East -- an interesting team itself, as Charlie Fisher, Jake Mazanke and Dean Bowen all played quarterback last year but return with Bowen passing to Fisher and Mazanke at wideout -- Geneva and Batavia are the best bets for that spot.
Geneva, which has won seven straight conference titles dating to the Suburban Prairie Conference, is the proverbial king until dethroned.
The Vikings return Northern Illinois-bound quarterback Matt Williams, who in 2010 accounted for 26 touchdowns and targets the Vikings' top wideout last season, Ben Hodges. Geneva brings back 270-pound junior tackle Jacob Bastin and two all-conference linemen, tight end Connor Einck and three-year starting guard Jake Mills.
All-conference defensive end Drew White is Wicinski's only returning defensive starter, but nowadays Geneva is in a constant state of reload.
"If you want to be a contender for the conference championship you'd better start finding a way to beat them, and right now really nobody is," said Batavia first-year head coach Dennis Piron, who succeeds retired Hall of Famer Mike Gaspari.
For the first time since 2006, Batavia really might. The Bulldogs return a slew of players led by a trio of all-conference three-year starters: Cole Gardner, Alec Lyons and quarterback Noel Gaspari, whose father remains as offensive coordinator. The defense is loaded with experience and good size, with the team's only apparent weakness entering the season, Piron said, being offensive line inexperience besides all-conference senior Nick Pappas.
Wicinski said Batavia "always leaves their mark on us."
Given the league's parity he believes someone, Batavia or otherwise, may do just that.
"We're not going undefeated in conference," Wicinski said.