The addition of two-time Class 6A state semifinalist Prairie Ridge will make winning the already hard-to-win Valley Division of the Fox Valley Conference that much tougher this fall.
Created in 2006-07 when the FVC expanded to 12 schools and split into six-team divisions, Valley Division schools have since left their mark on the postseason. Six different teams (including Woodstock, which later switched to the FVC Fox Division) have combined to make 17 playoff appearances. They boast a .568 postseason winning percentage (21-16).
Most of those playoff victories were garnered by the Valley's two best teams over that span: Cary-Grove and Crystal Lake South.
Cary-Grove won the first four Valley titles without a defeat, not to mention the Class 6A state title in 2009. Since 2006, the Trojans have gone 12-4 in postseason games.
CL South unseated Cary-Grove as Valley champion last season. The Gators are 7-5 in playoff games the last five years, highlighted by a Class 6A semifinal appearance in 2008.
But the addition of Prairie Ridge changes the dynamic of the league.
The Wolves have dominated the FVC Fox Division for the last five years, winning two outright titles (2007, 2010) and splitting two others (2006, 2008). They went 23-4 in Fox Division contests, 45-14 overall.
More impressively, the Wolves have made six straight playoff appearances and 10 in the last 12 seasons. They lost a 6A semifinal to eventual champion Cary-Grove in 2009.
Last year they avenged a regular-season loss to CL South by ending the Gators' undefeated season in a 6A quarterfinal. The Wolves were subsequently edged the following week by eventual champion Rockford Boylan, 14-7.
Coach Chris Schremp's team returns three third-year linebackers from a defense that held opponents to 8.1 points per game in 2010. Another five key returnees populate the offense.
"Prairie Ridge is coming in loaded," CL South coach Chuck Ahsmann said. "They've got their fullback back (senior Connor Greenwald), their running back (junior Jordan Getzelman) and lots of linemen. The only question is how they'll respond to playing a schedule like we play in the Valley where every game is a battle."
The Wolves will be up for the challenge, according to their coach.
"I don't know how much the schedule will have an impact this year," Schremp said. "We've always tried to schedule the toughest games we could find outside the conference to make our schedule as tough as we could. Maybe down the line that will have more of an impact. This year we're ready to get in there and compete.
Schremp doesn't expect anyone to run away with the Valley title.
"I don't think it will be considered an upset if one team beats another," he said. "In this league it will come down to whoever is ready to go that night. It'll be more of a test of team focus from beginning to end. If you win one week, you have to keep the guys motivated during the week to keep practicing hard because we're all pretty similar talent-wise. It's a matter of keeping things focused and avoiding the highs and lows."
Prairie Ridge joins the Valley at an interesting time. The division was bound to improve in 2011 anyway. Jacobs is seeking to build on last year's playoff berth under coach Bill Mitz with a roster 58 players strong. Ever-growing Huntley is gaining traction under second-year coach Matt Gehrig with the influx of a talented junior class. And the struggling Dundee-Crown program has been reinvigorated by new coach Vito Andriola.
Cary-Grove (8-4) has a new coach but a familiar look. Former sophomore coach and offensive expert Brad Seaburg takes over for retired head coach Bruce Kay.
Expect the same schemes. The entire starting backfield returns to the flex bone option, and 10 starters return to coordinator Don Sutherland's 3-3-5 defense.
"The strength of our defense is our speed," Seaburg said. "The guys know the defense well and that allows them to move to the ball quickly."
CL South (11-1) returns third-year linebacker Steve Forner. He is among eight returning starters from a defense that held opponents to 14 points a game last fall.
The Gators turn to junior Brendan Chrystal (6-2, 210) to replace graduated three-year starting quarterback Drew Ormseth. Like Ormseth, Chrystal can tuck and run with the ball. Ormseth was evasive; Chrystal is invasive. Rather than make defenders miss, the physical junior prefers to run them over, says his coach.
Senior quarterback Robert Tonyan returns to run coach Tim Beagle's spread offense for McHenry (1-8). As a junior Tonyan completed nearly 60 percent of his passes for over 2,700 yards. He threw 22 touchdowns and 8 interceptions.
Scoring wasn't a problem for the Warriors; they averaged 28.2 points per game. Defense was the issue; McHenry allowed 37.9 points per game.
Jacobs (6-4) hopes to take another step after reaching the playoffs last year for the first time since 2007. The Golden Eagles return eight starters on offense, including third-year tailback Caz Zyks (1,087 yards) and fellow senior Kyle Wright (811 yards). Last year Zyks and Wright turned in the second and third-best single-season rushing totals in school history, respectively, according to the Jacobs football website. Third-year quarterback Jason Judson threw for 860 yards as a junior.
"If you look at it on paper, Prairie Ridge and Cary-Grove should be good," Jacobs coach Bill Mitz said of the Valley race. "McHenry has the quarterback who can throw the heck out of the ball, and then there's us.
"I think it's going to be a great race. I don't know if anybody can go undefeated. I think it'll be you beat me, I beat them, they beat you, a lot like the Catholic League every year."
Huntley (4-5) inducts a junior class to the varsity that won 8 games as sophomores. Junior Ethan Connor gets his shot to start on the varsity alongside junior fullback Justin Gedaly (6-2, 215). Speedster James Davis moves from wide receiver to split carries with Connor. Davis will also play in the defensive secondary.
Senior quarterback Jake Brock took all the snaps on the JV level last year. He'll enjoy the luxury of a returning all-FVC Valley tight end in Josh Symbal.
New Dundee-Crown coach Vito Andriola has been tasked with turning around a program that enters the season on a 17-game losing streak. Andriola said he'll implement the same philosophy at D-C he learned as an assistant under Hall-of-Fame coach Bob Bradshaw of Woodstock.
"Good defense and good special teams, that's been our signature," Andriola said. "I think that's the easiest way to turn a program around."
Does the FVC Valley have a favorite?
"I think Jacobs, PR, Cary, us -- any of the four could win it," Ahsmann said. "And Huntley's lower levels have done real well. They will be a force to be reckoned with."
Hampshire joins the Fox Valley: The games on the schedule look very different.
Instead of traditional Big Northern East opponents like Richmond-Burton, Harvard and Marengo, new member Hampshire faces Fox Valley Conference Fox Division games against the likes of Grayslake Central, Woodstock and Crystal Lake Central, among others. Every experience will be a new one for the Whip-Purs in their inaugural season in the FVC Fox.
"We're excited, but we're going in blind," Hampshire coach Dan Cavanaugh said. "We tried to do our homework in the off-season, but we really have no idea about some of these programs or what we're getting into.
"It will be different. We'll certainly miss the rivalries we established in the other conference, but we look forward to the challenge. We know it's a great football conference. We feel we're coming out of a pretty good football conference, too. We'll see what happens."
A young squad overall, Hampshire will be led by returning all-Big Northern seniors Chase Lundry and Cody Ackmann.