A football team has to be pretty sly these days to win the competitive Fox Division of the Fox Valley Conference outright.
Three teams shared the Fox Division crown last season: Crystal Lake Central (6-4, 5-1), Grayslake Central (7-3, 5-1) and third-year program Woodstock North (7-3, 5-1). All three made the playoffs but lost in the first round.
CL Central looks like the team to beat in this year's FVC Fox hunt, according to most league coaches, but the Tigers will likely be challenged by offensive powerhouse Grayslake North and skilled Woodstock North.
"Those are the three everyone else is shooting for," first-year Grayslake Central coach Ben Ault said. "The rest of us are in a pack right behind them. I expect a lot of close games. It will be a very competitive league."
CL Central returns eight key starters, led by running back Matt MacAlpine (5-11, 190), running back/linebacker Darwin Stone (5-11, 195) defensive end Kyle Logan (6-1, 240) and offensive lineman Damien Patrick (6-4, 300), all seniors. MacAlpine rushed for 1,016 yards and 8 touchdowns on 153 carries last year. He enters his third varsity season.
"We're not going to reinvent the wheel," Tigers coach Matt Fralick said. "We're a power-running football team and we're planning to continue to do that. We have a very big, very physical team this year, which is nothing new."
CL Central returns three starters on defense. That unit, like every other defense in the league, will be challenged by the prolific Grayslake North offense. The Knights visit Crystal Lake on Oct. 5.
The Grayslake North offense graduated only all-area receiver Josh Cokefair from a team that finished 4-5, 3-3. Everyone else returns, led by all-area senior quarterback A.J. Fish. Also an all-state lacrosse player, last season the elusive Fish threw for 2,058 yards and 19 touchdowns and rushed for 501 yards and 7 more scores in a spread option offense. He completed 158 of 223 attempts (71 percent).
Seniors Charlie Pine and David Collins return to the backfield. They'll be joined by talented sophomore Titus Booker, who quarterbacked the freshman team to a conference title last fall. Coach Steve Wood calls Booker "a college prospect."
The Knights scored an average of 33.1 points per game in 2011, but they allowed 28.8 ppg. Junior linebacker Jesse Davis (6-3, 220), in his second varsity season, joins senior defensive end Vinnie Meixlersperger and senior linebacker Jake Smith as the defensive nucleus.
"If we can stay healthy, which everyone says, and our defense can be what it can be, I think we can be pretty damn good," Wood said. "I think Crystal Lake Central and Woodstock North, along with us, are the teams to beat."
Woodstock North graduated some key performers, but skill players responsible for over 2,700 yards of offense return, led by senior quarterback Brian Loftin. As a junior he threw for 600 yards and rushed for 450.
Fullback Ryan Wade was the leading rusher for the Thunder with 940 yards in 2011. The offensive line has holes to fill, though seniors Ricky Krenger and Rich Lucke return. Each will also play a key role defensively.
"The guys up front are a big deal," Woodstock North coach Jeff Schroeder said. "I think we're solid, but you never quite know until you get lined up. If we can perform up front the way we did last year, we should be pretty good and have a shot at it.
"Grayslake North is supposed to be good and they return a lot. And Crystal Lake Central is always right there. They have one of the higher enrollments, so with their talent pool and the wrestling program over there they always have tough kids."
Hit hard by graduation losses, including two school record holders -- tailback Joey Valdivia (1,356 yards, 20 TD) and quarterback Ray Beckman (1,365 yards, 14 TD) -- Grayslake Central returns only three starters on either side of the ball. Senior DaVonta Jennings was strictly a defensive back as a junior, but he'll get carries at running back this season. Luke Stancil (6-2, 285) is a standout, two-way, returning lineman.
"I think everyone is just eager to get that first game under our belts so you can see where you really are," Ault said. "We look good, but we're going against our own kids in practice."
Woodstock went 2-7 overall last season, but the Blue Streaks return some key players from a team that finished 2-4 in the FVC Fox, led by returning senior fullback/linebacker Brad Bertram (5-10, 215) and junior two-way lineman Kyle Woodall (6-2, 262).
"We're trying to change some habits," 10th-year coach Steve Beard said. "The reason certain programs and people enjoy success in life is because they develop successful, winning habits. We need to do that, hustle and believe in each other. Those are our three goals."
Beard pointed to CL Central as the league favorite, noting the Tigers' senior class has lost just one conference game in 18 outings over three years.
Hampshire hopes to insert itself in the thick of the Fox Division race with a bigger, stronger lineup, culled from a school-record turnout of 37 varsity players. The Whip-Purs (1-8, 1-5) struggled in their first year in the FVC Fox but should match up better with a more physical offensive line that averages 220 pounds, led by third year center Nick Denardo (5-10, 190).
Senior quarterback Kyle Anderson (669 yards, 10 TD) returns to lead the offense. He rushed for 390 yards as a junior. Experienced seniors Tyler Crater and Mike Laramie return to lead the defensive backfield.
"Everyone is saying the same thing: that Crystal Lake Central is the odds-on favorite," 24th-year Hampshire coach Dan Cavanaugh said. "Woodstock North is not going to surprise anybody this year. They're a good football team with a lot of people coming back. Another scary team is Grayslake North with (Fish) and almost the entire offense coming back.
"We sure hope to be in the mix. Our guys have worked hard to get stronger. We kept a lot of games close for a half last year. I think this group will be able to compete better from a physical standpoint for four quarters."
New-look Johnsburg aims to snap a 12-game losing streak. The Skyhawks' last victory came against Woodstock on Oct. 1, 2010. New coach Mike Maloney's slogan is "changing the culture." Attempting to do so will be seven returning offensive starters, four of whom will also play defense.
Senior tight end Michael Conroy (6-5, 235) is an impact player whether he's blocking or has the ball in his hands, and senior Jake Hauck (5-10, 155) has big-play capability. He'll follow holes opened by bookend tackles Brandon Boyle (6-2, 265) and Zach Kinney (6-4, 260). Maloney calls sophomore starting quarterback Nick Brengman "a special player."
"The Fox Valley Conference is a very good football league on both sides," Maloney said. "Like in a poker game, if you can't find the weak guy, you're probably it. I don't see that as a negative. For me and for our team, that's a challenge. I see some people we can compete with if we reduce turnovers and minimize big plays on defense."