Signs of autumn abounded Wednesday as fall sports practices opened at high schools statewide.
In the north end zone of Huntley High School's football field, two District 158 workers added a fresh coat of yellow paint to the goal posts. Meanwhile, two others painted the concession stand doors in preparation of the first game under Friday night lights in just over two weeks.
On the track, potential members of the boys soccer team ran a timed mile on the first day of tryouts before giving way to members of the girls cross country team.
However, the ultimate signs of fall -- 110 of them -- were clad in black helmets on the competition football field. That's how many seniors, juniors and sophomores combined new Huntley coach John Hart directed during his first official practice as new leader of the Red Raiders. Another 70 players are out for the freshman team, according to Hart, the only new coach this season out of 14 high school football programs in the Fox Valley.
Like other practices areawide, Huntley's quick-paced, regimented morning session was held in refreshing, comfortable temperatures under hazy sunshine. It was a far cry from the 100-plus-degree heat area teams attempted to dodge throughout the 25 days of full-contact summer practices allowed by the IHSA.
By rule, football players in Illinois go helmets only for the first three days of practice. Full-contact drills begin Saturday. With 16 days to prepare for the season opener on Aug 24, every coach hears the clock ticking.
"Right now you just feel like you've got too much to get done," Hart said between double sessions. "It's almost overwhelming because you want to get everything lined up, so you're pushing yourself and not sleeping at night. Hopefully, within the next three days we can get enough done so I can take a nap."
Opponents can't sleep on the Red Raiders this year. Hart lauded the summer progression of first-team quarterback Kameron Sallee and called 6-foot-4 bookend receivers Bryce Beschorner and Jake Lackovic "the best pair I've ever had on the field at one time." That's high praise from a man who coached a pair of Indiana schools to state titles and owns a career record of 238-70.
Huntley hardly has the market cornered when it comes to area talent, however. Other returning standouts include 6-foot-2, NIU-bound wide receiver Blake Holder of Streamwood, Jacobs two-way senior lineman and Toledo recruit Adam Kulon and Bartlett senior defensive end Chris Kantzavelos (Central Michigan).
Also back are the area's third-leading receiver of 2011, Jake Gierlak of Jacobs (34 receptions, 715 yards, 6 TD), and college line prospects Alex Schabert of Larkin (6-2, 325) and A.J. Mitchell of Streamwood (6-0, 245).
The area's leading rusher last season, Joel Bouagnon of Burlington Central, won't threaten teams in the Big Northern East this season. The senior, who paced area running backs in 2011 with 1,446 yards and 15 touchdowns in 174 attempts, is not enrolled at Burlington Central, athletic director Steve Diversey said Wednesday. According to a published report, Bouagnon has transferred to Aurora Christian. Aurora Christian athletic director Dan Beebe did not return a call Wednesday seeking confirmation of Bouagnon's enrollment.
Likewise, the area's seventh-leading rusher, James Butler (933 yards, 14 TD), left Bartlett for St. Francis, another Suburban Christian Conference school. Butler attended the first day of practice at St. Francis Wednesday, but he did not participate because he had not yet been cleared, according to a source close to the St. Francis football program.
The Fox Valley area does return its leading scorer. Dynamic option quarterback Quinn Baker of Cary-Grove (18 touchdowns, 108 points) leads a backfield that also includes third-year slot back Ryan Mahoney and converted linebacker Kyle Norberg at fullback. As a junior last season, Baker gained 1,103 yards on 179 carries, the fifth-highest total in the area.
"Quinn looks really good. He had a great off-season," second-year Cary-Grove coach Brad Seaburg said after practice. "His fundamentals are very good and leadership-wise he's doing a real nice job. We're very happy with how he's progressing."
The Trojans were among six area teams to qualify for the state playoffs last season, along with Bartlett, Burlington Central, Crystal Lake South, Jacobs and Streamwood. CL South boasts the area's longest streak of consecutive playoff appearances (11).
Other teams are striving to get back to the postseason after near misses a year ago.
St. Edward's string of back-to-back playoff appearances ended when the Green Wave lost their last 4 games against tough competition and finished out of the mix at 4-5.
South Elgin was hampered by injuries to key players throughout last season, finished 4-5 and missed the playoffs for the first time in three years.
"The kids gave it a good effort today," veteran South Elgin coach Dale Schabert said with Day 1 in the books. "A lot of new faces. We've got some work to do, but we'll see."
The faces change. The workload for coaches this time of year never does.
"Our coaches all had the same discussions with the wives and family earlier this week," Schabert added. "You know the work that's coming in the next 13, 14 weeks ahead of you. Still, you're excited. You want to get there the next day, you want to do it, you want to get after it again."
Dundee-Crown enters the season on a 26-game losing streak, but the sophomore-heavy unit of a year ago should show improvement with age and a second year of instruction from coach Vito Andriola and his staff. Meanwhile, the proud programs at Elgin (1-8) and Hampshire (1-8) hope to make strides back to respectability.
No matter last year's record, optimism reigned on the opening day of practice.
"The first half-hour is all (administrative) stuff, then its like, 'Oh God, here we go,'" said third-year Larkin coach Mike Scianna, whose team finished 3-6 last season.
"The first day is all about keeping them excited," Scianna said, "telling them they are different than anyone else in the building, telling them they're special because they are. Not everyone can play this sport."
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