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In the opinion of 25th-year Hampshire coach Dan Cavanaugh, little stood between the 3-6 Whip-Purs of 2012 and playoff eligibility.
"We were probably 2 or 3 plays away, legitimately, from being a playoff team last year," said Cavanaugh, who coached Hampshire to a Class 2A state championship in 1995. "That last play of the game against Woodstock and that (season) opener against Burlington (Central). Those were the ones that really hurt us. But we felt like we made some huge strides last year. We're going to be more competitive this year."
While the Hampshire offense has potential, the team's strength may lie in its defense, where multiple returning players comprise a strong, bulky front. Senior Leighton Sheetz (6-foot, 275 pounds) returns at tackle alongside Mike Gibas (6-2, 240). Flanking them on the ends are Matt Kielbasa (6-2, 250) and Steve Kirkwood (5-10, 185), a smaller, quicker end who started last year as a sophomore.
Right behind them are returning inside linebackers Brandan Swanson (6-0, 170) and Ben Bednarek (5-10, 210).
"I'm really happy with our inside six people," Cavanaugh said. "We have some experience coming back. Five of the six started last year on the inside and they've gotten bigger, faster and stronger. I like what I see up the middle. Our perimeter will come around. There's some inexperience there."
There is competition in the secondary, where juniors Trey Schramm (5-11, 170) and Mason Fluery (6-1, 185) and sophomore Mike Kruse (5-8, 165) will all be in the mix.
The offense returns senior ball carrier Nick Kielbasa (5-9, 180), who returned from injury late last season and enjoyed some productive games. He rushed 50 times for 260 yards (5.0 avg) and a touchdown. He is joined in the backfield by senior Chris Calvin (5-7, 150), who rushed for 167 yards on 40 carries (4.2 avg.). Fluery joined the varsity as a blocking wingback midway through last season.
Two quarterbacks are competing for the starting job, according to Cavanaugh: junior Nick Mohlman (5-9, 160) and senior Mitch Lundry (5-9, 150). Mohlman quarterbacked the sophomore team last year. Both players throw the ball well and possess the quickness to scramble for yards, according to their coach.
An above-average receiving corps is led by Tim Jansen (5-9, 170), who last year made 4 catches for 43 yards despite playing mostly playing cornerback. Other options include Schramm and Giancarlo Chavez (5-8, 155), who also might carry the ball on occasion.
The stout offensive line features a few of the same names from the defense like Gibas and Matt Kielbasa along with Josh Mink (6-1, 250), Austin Swanson (6-1, 180) and Gader Bulow (6-1, 205). Senior Erik Sullivan (6-0, 175) returns at tight end.
"We always want to run the ball first," Cavanaugh said. "We've got experience in the backfield and some big, physical guys up front, which we haven't had the last couple of years. We have some experience up there, too. And we can throw the ball. Our receivers are a notch above where we've been in past years, more athletic. Jansen really stuck out over the summer in seven on sevens."
Is the improved line play coupled with talent at the skill positions enough to catapult Hampshire to its first winning record and first playoff berth since 2008?
"That's the goal. (The players) have expressed it," Cavanaugh said. "They're hungry to get back in the playoffs. They know we had a pretty good tradition, but we haven't made it the past couple of years so there hungry to get back there. That's the goal. That and to compete for the conference championship, too."
Hampshire finished fifth in the seven-team Fox Division of the Fox Valley Conference last season with a 2-4 record.