McHenry won 15 Fox Valley Conference titles between 1988 and 2003.
Cary-Grove took its turn as league behemoth by winning conference or division titles every year from 2004-2009.
The days of FVC dynasties may be at an end, however. As the level of coaching in recent years has risen leaguewide, so has the overall quality of play. The Valley Division of the FVC has developed into a tougher, more balanced league than ever before.
Take Crystal Lake South, for example. The Gators are coming off back-to-back seasons in which they won more games (21) than in any previous two-year period in program history. Yet, CL South couldn't lay claim to being the best team in the FVC Valley last year. That honor belonged to Prairie Ridge.
In their first season in the Valley Division, the Wolves defeated the Gators 41-16 in Week 6 and went on to win the Class 6A state championship.
Prairie Ridge's only defeat in 14 outings? A 22-21, Week 9, overtime upset on its home field at the hands of Cary-Grove. That result allowed CL South to finish tied with PR for the Valley Division title, the Gators' second straight. Cary-Grove, in turn, was beaten by Jacobs, 28-21, and Jacobs was beaten by Crystal Lake South, 21-6.
In other words, a league once dominated by powerhouse teams now finds itself neck-deep in parity at a very high level. Prairie Ride opens the season ranked No. 4 in Class 6A, Crystal Lake South is No. 9 in Class 7A and Cary-Grove is 10th in 7A.
"I think its going to be just like last year with four teams that are going to battle it out," Jacobs coach Bill Mitz said. "Not sure if anyone will go undefeated. If anyone does, they've had a great season. There are some good football teams out there and some good coaches. Anything can happen."
Prairie Ridge lost much to graduation but retools with a junior class that went 8-1 as freshmen and 7-2 as sophomores despite several players lost to the varsity.
The Wolves return three starters on either side of the ball, most notably, third-year safety Sean Folliard (6-2, 206), a senior committed to Northern Illinois. Junior defensive lineman Austin Nirva (6-0, 180) started every game for the state title team as a sophomore.
Offensively, junior tackle Shane Evans (6-4, 260) has started every game since he was a freshman. Starting center Bennett Tomlin (6-0, 250) also returns. They'll protect an all-new but talented backfield, led by junior option quarterback Oliver Kremer.
Most of the carries will go to athletic junior Steven Ladd and senior fullback Kingsley Ebirim, a short, stocky power runner.
"We're extremely young with a lot of juniors, but they're pretty solid juniors," Prairie Ridge coach Chris Schremp said. "I think our defense will be athletic enough to keep us in games, and I really think our offensive line is strong enough to let us run the ball."
Prairie Ridge hosts Crystal Lake South in Week 6, Jacobs in Week 7 and travels to Cary-Grove in Week 9.
"The schedule sets up pretty good for us with a lot of our tough conference games at the end of the year," Schremp said. "It's just a matter of how quickly we mature. If we grow up quickly, we could be right up there."
The Cary-Grove triple option offense possesses explosive potential. Returning senior all-area quarterback Quinn Baker (5-11, 185) returns after rushing for 1,104 yards and 18 touchdowns on 179 attempts last season (6.4-yard avg.).
The backfield includes third-year tailback Ryan Mahoney (5-11, 170) and converted fullback Kyle Norberg (6-2, 211), a linebacker the last two seasons. All-area safety Zach Marszal (6-0, 182) snared 5 interceptions last season. He'll also see time on offense at split end.
While cognizant of the overall quality of play leaguewide, second-year Cary-Grove coach Brad Seaburg expects the Trojans to make a run at their first FVC Valley title since the 2009 state championship season.
"It's really a wide open and talented league, but I think we'll be in the hunt at the end," Seaburg said. "Prairie Ridge is the defending state champ so, of course, they have high expectations, as they should. And South is always good. Jacobs beat us last year and they have a lot of guys returning. Huntley and McHenry I don't know yet because they have new coaches coming in. It will be competitive."
Jacobs returns nine starters on defense from a unit that held opponents to averages of 16.9 points and 248 yards per game. Leading the way will be Toledo defensive end recruit Adam Kulon (6-4, 240). All four linebackers either started or played significantly. The secondary is led by senior Greg Sidor (3 interceptions) and junior Hunter Williams (2).
Junior Brett Mooney (6-4, 205) takes over at quarterback and has a quality target in returning all-area receiver Jake Gierlak (5-10, 180). The senior set a single-season school record in 2011 with 716 yards receiving. He made 34 receptions and scored 6 touchdowns.
Crystal Lake South graduated the most successful senior class in school history, but the Gators aren't wringing their hands. "We feel we still have some talent in the pipeline," CL South coach Chuck Ahsmann said. CL South's incoming junior class went 8-1 as sophomores, losing only to Prairie Ridge on a late touchdown.
The Gators return senior Boston Mathews (6-3, 260), who committed to Toledo. He moved from tight end to tackle during the 2011 season due to an injury to another player. The robust offensive line also returns guard Pat Walsh (6-2, 240) and right tackle Mike Franke (6-2, 255). Those veterans are joined by sophomore starters Kyle Hedge (6-1 255) at guard and Alex Gardeck (5-10, 230) at center.
That healthy line will protect junior quarterback Greg Galloway. He started last year for the sophomore team and has played quarterback since his days with the Crystal Lake Raiders youth program.
Defensively, third-year starter Nick Amren moves from middle linebacker to the defensive line. A monster in the weight room, the 6-foot-2, 260-pound senior has a shot to play at the next level, according to Ahsmann. Two-year safety Brendan Chrystal takes over at middle linebacker.
Huntley is the wild card in the Valley race. Coming off a 2-7 season, outgoing athletic director Bruce Blumer hired a proven winner last spring in John Hart. He won state titles at two Indiana high schools in the last five seasons.
Huntley's new coach likes his offense and says the defense is improving as fall practice continues. "You can put it in ink; we'll definitely score points," Hart said. "Now, whether we can stop the other team, we'll see."
Kam Sallee (6-2, 185) takes over at quarterback after missing last season due to injury. He'll throw to senior receivers Bryce Beschorner (6-3, 190), an all-FVC Valley selection in 2011, and Jake Lackovic (6-4, 215). All-FVC Valley running back Ethan Connor (6-0, 195) returns. He'll be joined in the backfield by speedy junior Mitchell Kawell (5-10, 175) and junior "scat back" Jake Scalise (5-4, 155).
Third-year linebacker Justin Gedaly (6-1, 210) heads a strong unit that includes senior Brandon Mabry (5-11, 200) and junior mark Skonieczny (5-11, 200).
Talent is one thing, belief is another. Have the Huntley players been infused with the confidence to rise from a 2-7 season in 2011 to the upper echelon of what has become one of Illinois' better public school football conferences in 2012?
"They believe in each other and what we're trying to accomplish as a team," Hart said. "It doesn't matter if it's the NFL or pee-wee football -- if everyone believes in the same thing, great things can happen."
McHenry qualified for the playoffs for 20 straight years, but the Warriors have missed the postseason the last four seasons. Coach Tim Beagle resigned in January after six campaigns. The program is now led by Dave D'Angelo, a 1981 McHenry graduate who originally joined the McHenry coaching staff in 1985.
Dundee-Crown enters the season on a 26-game losing streak, but the Chargers have been hard at work in the off-season. Coach Vito Andriola said his bigger, stronger, faster, more experienced lineup "will show definite improvement" over 2011, when the Chargers were outscored 361-102.
The title will likely go to one or more of the usual suspects.
"It's the mainstays of Cary and South and knocking right on the door will be Jacobs and Huntley, with their new coach putting in a solid foundation," said Schremp, whose team also figures to contend. "I wouldn't be surprised if a couple teams tie with one or two losses."