Much has changed since the high school football season concluded last November in Champaign, including the ultimate destination.
The state championships move this season from the University of Illinois to DeKalb's Huskie Stadium. Northern Illinois University will host the IHSA title games in odd-numbered years through 2021 due to a scheduling conflict at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.
The landscape has likewise changed on the local level as fall practices open statewide, particularly in Elgin Area School District U-46 where three of the five football programs enter the season with new head coaches for today's first day of practice.
South Elgin's Dale Schabert stepped down in July after leading the Storm for seven campaigns. He also coached Larkin for 11 years and spent 33 seasons in coaching overall. Pat Pistorio, who played for Schabert at Larkin, takes over at South Elgin, where he also teaches social studies.
Pistorio returns to the high school game after several years coaching at Lake Forest College and Harper College and with the Chicago Slaughter professional indoor football team. He'll direct an offense triggered by senior quarterback Robert Cuda, who threw for over 1,700 yards and 20 touchdowns as a junior. Also returning is senior linebacker/tight end Nate Marotta, who made 56.5 tackles and caught 19 passes for 233 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Elgin 2002 graduate Kyle Rohde takes over at his alma mater for Dave Bierman, another Elgin graduate. Bierman stepped down after the 2012 season in the face of declining participation numbers. Rohde has vowed to deliver the same brand of "smash-mouth football" he played while a member of the offensive line at Millikin from 2002-2006. Having third-year starting quarterback Ryan Sitter -- a three-sport athlete -- calling the shots won't hurt either.
Streamwood aims to build a contender behind new coach Mark Orszula, who played offensive line for Northern Illinois from 1999-2004. He replaces Cal Cummins, whose teams finished 15-49 in seven seasons. Orszula comes to Streamwood after 5 seasons at Westmont, where his teams went 11-34.
Elsewhere in District U-46, the Bartlett coaching staff is preparing a largely unproven group to compete for the program's 13th playoff berth in 14 seasons. A Week 1 victory would help the cause, but those are somewhat uncommon for the Hawks, who last season slipped to 4-11 all-time in season openers after a 49-0 drubbing at Wheaton North. That game that unraveled after Bartlett lost its starting quarterback to injury on the first series.
However, the Hawks went 7-3 from that point forward, including a first-round playoff win at Leyden. Bartlett coach Tom Meaney said Tuesday his run-oriented team has improved "200-fold" since the summer began. They'll be tested right out of the gate with nonconference games at Huntley and home against Niles Notre Dame.
Larkin is working to improve on the heels of a 2-7 finish in 2012. Mobile quarterback Kemmerin Blalark heads an athletic senior class that might lack depth but not talent. The Royals possess speed in all the right spots, enough to surprise some opponents.
St. Edward is preparing for its final tour through the rugged Suburban Christian Conference. It is among seven SCC schools set to merge with the Metro Suburban Conference in 2014-15.
A solid start is critical for the Green Wave to make the postseason considering Marian Central and St. Francis loom in Weeks 8 and 9. Fourth-year running back Davontae Elam is poised for a big season, according to coach Mike Rolando. Elam fought through multiple injuries last season to rush for 918 yards and 8 touchdowns. "Like I've never seen him," Rolando said of Elam's current fitness level. "And he has weapons around him this year."
A notable change in Elgin this fall will be the varsity debut of Westminster Christian football. The Warriors will compete in the Northeast Athletic Conference against the likes of Christian Liberty Academy, Chicago Hope, Alden-Hebron, Mooseheart and Rockford Christian Life, among others. Westminster plays its inaugural game at league foe Luther North on Saturday, Aug. 31 at 1 p.m.
At Burlington Central, the Rockets are hoping for better health. Injuries undercut the competitive 2012 squad, which opened the season 5-1 but twice lost its starting quarterback to injury, dropped its final 3 contests and missed the postseason due to insufficient playoff points.
Central has a solid offensive core around which to build this fall, including senior Reilly Marino and junior Trevor Davison, who collectively rushed last season for 1,032 yards and 9 touchdowns. The silver lining to last year's rash of injuries? Senior quarterback Casey Matthews took some reps he otherwise would not have received as a junior playing behind a third-year starter.
Veteran Hampshire coach Dan Cavanaugh's team finished 3-6 last season, but the Whip-Purs weren't far from being playoff eligible. They lost a 3-point game to Woodstock and a 9-point game to rival Burlington Central in the season opener. It was a marked improvement over a 1-8 showing in 2011. A similar step forward this fall could improve Hampshire's fifth-place finish in the Fox Valley Conference's Fox Division and land the program in the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Little has changed in the highly competitive Valley Division of the FVC, where the level of competition seems to improve on a yearly basis.
Cary-Grove ruled the roost last season. The Trojans fended off divisional challenges from eventual playoff teams Huntley, Crystal Lake South and Jacobs and won 13 straight before dropping a 33-26 decision to talented Crete-Monee in the Class 6A championship game.
Cary-Grove will retool with athletic junior quarterback Jason Gregoire, who gained varsity experience last season when starter Quinn Baker suffered a hand injury. Gregoire, the school's best varsity basketball player last winter as a sophomore, has good protection. By the time their respective high school careers end junior linemen Michael Gomez and Trevor Ruhland should rank among the finest offensive linemen the program has produced.
Huntley improved from 2 wins to 6 in coach John Hart's first season. It took a Fenwick field goal in the final seconds to knock the Red Raiders out of the playoffs. On the eve of the first day of practice Tuesday, Hart said this year's unit "has improved as much from one year to the next as any team I've coached." Senior Blake Jacobs steps into the starting quarterback role and all-purpose back Jake Scalise (568 yards, 6 TD) returns for his senior season.
Crystal Lake South opened last season 1-3, but the Gators won their final 5 regular-season games to qualify for the playoffs for the 12th straight season, the longest such streak among the 14 football-playing schools within the Daily Herald's Fox Valley coverage area. CL South's hot streak coincided with the emergence of quarterback Austin Rogers, who as a junior developed into a dual threat. He finished with 5 rushing touchdowns and 4 scores via the pass. He's back to lead the Gators in their quest for consecutive playoff appearance No. 13.
District 300 schools Jacobs and Dundee-Crown demonstrate the depth within the ever-improving FVC Valley.
Jacobs coach Bill Mitz and his staff are shooting for the program's fourth straight playoff berth. They'll take aim behind 6-foot-4 senior quarterback Bret Mooney. The Division-I prospect led area passers last year with 2,086 yards and he threw 16 touchdown strikes. He'll target all-area receiver Hunter Williams, who as a junior averaged 24.1 yards per catch en route to 747 yards receiving and 7 touchdowns.
Dundee-Crown is the dark horse. Coach Vito Andriola's Chargers took a giant step forward last season when they snapped a 26-game losing streak and opened the season 3-1. However, that promising start was followed by a 5-game losing streak against FVC heavyweights. Led by returning all-area fullback Cody Lane (161 carries, 1,247 yards, 18 TDs), D-C could be strong enough to challenge for its first playoff berth since 1994.