As it has been for the last four seasons, the Interstate Eight Conference's Small Division is Wilmington's to lose.
"That's like the sun coming up with them," said Lisle coach Dan Sanko.
Coach Jeff Reents' Wildcats have gone 5-0 in the Small Division each year since 2008, and in fact Wilmington had a 30-game win streak over all Interstate Eight Large and Small foes broken last season, when they finished an uncharacteristic 7-4 overall.
Returning a pair of all-conference players in linebacker Chris Tworek and 6-foot-4, 280-pound offensive tackle Derrick Romano plus quarterback Sean Liaromatis and three-year starting cornerback Mike Wolfe, things again look good for Wilmington.
"He threw for around 900 (yards)," Reents said of Liaromatis, "but just having him running that double-wing (offense) is a big help."
A 19-year head coach with Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame credentials, Reents brings six starters back on each side of the ball, giving them the edge for the conference title.
"You kind of go by past performance, and nobody's knocked them off the past few years," said Westmont coach Mark Orzula, who lost only to the Wildcats in conference last season. "Until somebody does, it's tough."
Despite low numbers Westmont went 4-1 in the Small Division and could vie with Lisle as the team that gives Wilmington the best battle. Orzula, a Lisle graduate, brings back quarterback Tim Doll, who was voted all-conference as a sophomore. He also has an athlete at running back-linebacker in Kris Pierce, kid brother to former Sentinels basketball stars Pierre and Tyler Pierce.
Lisle, 2-3 last season, would have to leapfrog Seneca, which went 3-2 to finish third in the league. Seneca and all-conference quarterback Peyton Schrag has overcome its own low numbers of years past. The Fighting Irish welcome new head coach Ted O'Boyle, who led Flanagan-Cornell to either the 1A or 2A playoffs in 10 of his 11 seasons.
Sanko, though, is excited by a strong junior class, including returning varsity players Griffin Huba, Kevin Coppin, Bailey Welch and Cliff Krause. Sanko's got many skill players in the stable, and they'll be led by three-year starting quarterback Nick Saul, who threw for nearly 1,300 yards last season. "I hope we can fly under the radar and sneak up on people," said Sanko, now in his 16th year.
Dwight and Reed-Custer went a combined 1-9 in the conference and 1-17 against all Interstate Eight foes, but Reents believes they'll be improved under second-year head coaches Andy Pittenger and Nick Klein, respectively.
"I think they're going to be young on both sides," Reents said, "but I think they're going to be playing their best football by the time they get into conference play."
That's the hitch of the two-tiered Interstate Eight, the great disparity between the two divisions. Four of the six teams in the Large Division went to the playoffs, including defending co-champions Coal City and Manteno. They feasted on Small Division teams, only Lisle (over Herscher) and Wilmington (over Peotone) earning wins against the larger schools.
Coal City, Sandwich, Plano and Manteno, which returns third-year quarterback Ryan Sample, hope to again enjoy the likes of a 22-2 overall record against the Small.
Lisle benefits by playing neither Coal City nor Plano this season, but will open up against Manteno's Sample. Wilmington starts with Coal City, then Sandwich, and has Plano in Week 8.
"I think the first-week games will tell a lot about how the games will go," Sanko said. "Those small schools with the big schools were just an absolute blowout. Hopefully, we're one of them that's competitive."