The title picture in the Fox Valley Conference's Valley Division has taken on a familiar blue tint.
Cary-Grove won FVC titles every fall between 2004-09 under hall of famer Bruce Kay, who retired after the 2010 season.
After a two-campaign title drought, second-year coach Brad Seaburg and his staff have the Trojans undefeated (7-0, 4-0) and zeroed in on a return to the FVC Valley throne.
The No. 6 team in The Associated Press Class 7A poll, Cary-Grove can win the title by coupling a victory Friday at Dundee-Crown (3-4, 1-3) with a Week 9 win against Prairie Ridge (2-5, 0-4).
Two years without a league championship may not seem like much of a drought at some schools, but it is at Cary-Grove. And it seems like an eternity to a senior who has not won a title in two previous varsity seasons, like safety/receiver Zach Marszal.
"The past two years have felt like way more than two years." Marszal said Saturday in the wake of Cary-Grove's 41-14 victory over Huntley (4-3, 4-1). "Getting that feeling back ... I mean, it's not over yet; we still have two games to finish it out. But right now we are in the driver's seat."
Though the Trojans didn't win the Valley in 2010 or 2011, they remained consistently tough to beat. They went 16-7 combined and extended program records for consecutive playoff appearances (eight) and consecutive seasons with a first-round playoff victory (eight).
In Kay's final season, Cary-Grove went 8-4 and finished second in the Valley after losing by 2 touchdowns to Crystal Lake South, which won the title outright.
In Seaburg's first season last year, the Trojans finished third behind co-champions Prairie Ridge and CL South. In hindsight, it was a respectable showing considering the league's overall strength in 2011. Prairie Ridge (13-1) won the Class 6A state championship, it's only loss coming against the Trojans in Week 9. A CL South team driven by the most successful senior class in its history went 10-2, losing in a state quarterfinal to undefeated Class 7A state champion Rockford Boylan.
Already this season, the Trojans have defeated CL South (17-3), Jacobs (45-14), McHenry (42-3) and Huntley to position themselves for a division crown.
A 12-year veteran coach within the program and a former all-state linebacker at Marengo, Seaburg said multiple factors have paved the way for Cary-Grove's return to first place, the legacy Kay left among them. The new coach said his old boss "left the program in great shape" and remains a trusted adviser when Seaburg wants to discuss difficult decisions.
"All of our coaches learned from Bruce about attention to detail and work ethic," Seaburg said. "One of the things that Bruce was just the best at was organization and knowing how things ought to be done -- the right way. His example was something all our
coaches understood and was the right way to coach."
Continuity within the Cary-Grove coaching ranks has been a key element in the program's smooth transition between head coaches. Not only were the players already familiar with Seaburg, who coached the current seniors on the sophomore level, but most of Kay's veteran staff remains, headed by sage defensive coordinator Don Sutherland.
Sutherland is so integral to the program's success of the last eight years that Seaburg said he probably would not have applied for the head coaching position had Sutherland decided to step away when Kay did.
Other holdovers include split ends coach and sophomore offensive coordinator Ryan Passaglia, a Cary-Grove graduate now in his 15th season on staff. Matt Furlong (eighth season) coaches varsity safeties and succeeded Seaburg as sophomore head coach. Offensive line coach and Cary-Grove graduate Mike Manning is in his 12th season. Defensive backs coach Mike Walston (19th season) doubles as special teams coordinator. He has been a varsity assistant since 2002. Defensive line coach Dean Schlueter, formerly head coach at Jacobs, joined the staff three years ago. And Phil Raffelli came on board six years ago. A Cary resident, he coached at Stevenson for 27 years before his retirement. Six more coaches have since joined the varsity staff in the last two years.
Seaburg also credits the Class of 2011-12 for continuing the tradition of hard work in the off-season, a common thread woven into the fabric of every Cary-Grove team since the program began its successful run in 2004. He sees that same work ethic in this year's seniors.
"I think it's right there where it's been," Seaburg said. "Our seniors are very focused like the groups we've had in the past. Our sophomores right now are 7-0 also. We're playing good, tough football.
"Talent helps, too."
Ah, yes. Talent.
While the difficult-to-prepare-for triple option offense and vexing 3-3-5 defense annually help the Trojans compete schematically, the presence of multiple special athletes has separated Cary-Grove's good teams from its most successful teams of 2004 (Class 7A state runner up) and 2009 (Class 6A state champion). The 2004 team had quarterback Brian Mitz and fullback Will Yocius. The 2009 team boasted fullback Eric Chandler, wingback Alex Hembrey and safety/receiver Chad McCarron.
The 2012 Trojans boast three standouts in Marszal (6-0, 182), senior fullback Kyle Norberg (6-2, 212) and senior quarterback Quinn Baker (5-11, 185).
Marszal plays the all-important linebacker/safety hybrid position and doubles as an threat on offense, as he demonstrated last week by catching a 42-yard touchdown pass and running for a 63-yard score on a reverse. Norberg is a beast to tackle. He has rushed 92 times for 892 yards (9.7 avg.) and 11 touchdowns.
Baker has rushed for 664 yards and 14 touchdowns on 112 carries and has thrown for 5 scores. However, he will play running back this week while a broken finger suffered against Huntley heals, Seaburg said. Together, the three supply the Trojans with the difference makers necessary to compete for the division title and more.
"I think they've got the right parts," Huntley coach John Hart said. "They have two really special players in (Marszal) and (Norberg), three if you count the quarterback. I don't know if they have a weakness. It's not like we went into last week saying we're going to try to pick on this guy or pick on this side of their line or their secondary or their linebackers. They don't have a weakness. That's the thing that makes them good. And those two great players and the quarterback make them great."
The Cary-Grove lineup will only get stronger in the next two weeks with the return from injury of two more key offensive players. Third-year wingback Ryan Mahoney, sidelined since Week 3 with a high ankle sprain, is expected to get the starting nod against Dundee-Crown. Sophomore offensive lineman Michael Gomez, who started as a freshman, could return against Prairie Ridge, Seaburg said. Gomez broke his tibia four weeks ago against Hampshire. That duo will further fortify a team now averaging 37.7 points 397 total yards per game.
"The thing you always see with Cary is they always get better as the season goes on," CL South coach Chuck Ahsmann said. "I think that's a tribute to their coaching staff."
Whether the Trojans can recapture the postseason glory of 2009 remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Cary-Grove presses onward toward regaining the FVC Valley throne for the first time since its state championship run.
"I don't know what's going to happen the rest of the year," Seaburg said, "but (the players) have certainly done a great job of handling adversity and achieving success."
And that has the rest of the FVC Valley seeing blue.