Arguably the most talented senior class in Lakes football history graduated last spring.
Star running back Direll Clark will no longer terrorize defenses with strong, punishing rushes all over the field. He's playing at Winona State along with two of his Lakes classmates, standout wide receivers Justin Bergeron and Andrew Spencer. Six other players from that talented senior class are also playing football in college this fall.
So what on Earth are the Eagles to do? How do they defend last year's second straight North Suburban Conference Prairie Division title with so many holes?
"That's literally (the vibe) we get from a lot of people. Like, 'Oh my God, what are you guys going to do now?' said Lakes coach Luke Mertens, whose team went 9-2 last season and advanced to the second round of the Class 6A playoffs. "I think our current senior class kind of takes some offense to that.
"We might not have all of the big names we had last year. But we have some really good players on this team who have been waiting for their opportunity to play, and now they've got it."
One player who doesn't exactly fit that category is quarterback TJ Edwards, who got plenty of reps last season as a junior starter. Despite entering the season having very little experience under center, he quickly emerged as one of the best quarterbacks in the area.
Edwards, who committed to Western Michigan this summer, passed for about 1,800 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Also quick on his feet, Edwards gives Lakes plenty of options. Last year, he ran for about 600 yards and 10 touchdowns as well.
"He's gotten even bigger and stronger and faster," Mertens said of Edwards, who was 180 pounds last year and now checks in at 215 pounds. "He worked a lot over the summer and when you have someone who can throw the ball like TJ, I think that's a key to success because you have to be able to diversify in high school football. No matter how good you are at the run, you've got to be able to throw it because eventually the defense is going to shut you down if you're too one-dimensional."
To keep that balance, Edwards will look to pass to wide receivers such as Nick Battaglia, Zac Shoman and Jake Balliu while handing off to running back Cameron Johnson.
"Cameron is going to be huge for us," Mertens said of his 5-foot-8 senior. "On any other team, he would have been starting last year, but he just happened to be behind Direll Clark. We know how lucky we are to have Cameron. He's got good speed, he's physical, he's strong and low to the ground and he can run. He'll get the bulk of our carries this year."
Lakes also returns six offensive linemen with experience, including 6-foot-4, 250-pounder Ryan Mullen. But defensively, the Eagles will be young.
Mertens says the young players aren't a worry, though. They've picked up quickly to the way things are done at Lakes, which has become a major player in Lake County. The Eagles are going for their fifth straight playoff berth and their sixth in the eight years of the program.
"When you have success, it helps all the young guys coming up to have a better vision of the future and to have more confidence in themselves," Mertens said. "These guys know the kind of teams we've had in the past, but I think they're also excited to show what kind of team they can be."