Two-time defending Class 3A state champion Aurora Christian returns talent, experience and numbers. Its title defense hinges more on intangibles every championship team has, coach Don Beebe said.
"We've got to find that chemistry and we've got to find that leadership," Beebe said. "We've got to find that and until we do we won't know if we can pull that thing off."
During the football team's annual excursion to the Dickson Valley Camp and Retreat Center in Newark, the Eagles went a long way toward developing those facets. But it will be difficult to replace the qualities of graduates like quarterback Ryan McQuade and linebacker Brandon Mayes, who went to Northern Illinois University along with receiver Chad Beebe and back-linebacker Joel Bouagnon.
In two years it appears Eagles junior quarterback Austin Bray will also be going Division I. Last season he vied for the varsity spot then started for the sophomores. But at 6-foot-3 and 221 pounds Bray was big and strong enough to play varsity defensive end the last six games.
(Speaking of big and strong, when Beebe took control in 2004 he didn't have one player who could bench-press 225 pounds; this year's team has 13 at 300 or more. Jonah Walker's 33 reps of 185 pounds set the bench-press record at West Aurora's Big Butts Lineman Challenge.)
Bray's size is the draw but when college programs like Michigan State, Georgia and Oklahoma State have seen him in action they've liked his arm. Beebe said Bray set the Ole Miss high schoolers' camp record by throwing the football 56 miles per hour from 25 yards into a net.
"I think he's going to be a great one, I really do," Beebe said.
When Bray needs guidance he'll find it right in front of him. Along with the defensive line and secondary returning intact, Aurora Christian returns four of five starters on the offensive line. Left tackle Walker, guards Nathan Wells and John Czerwinski and center Tristan Withrow, along with mature senior Jack Burke at right tackle, make the offensive line a big strength.
"I am so excited about our offensive line, these guys are really, really good," Beebe said. "They will be the ones who will get us through our tough times. Last year it was our skill guys. This year it'll be our line."
The graduation of backs Mayes and Bouagnon and receivers Chad Beebe and Cory Windle leaves big cleats to be filled. But tailback Legend Smith and receivers Noah Roberts and Brandon Walgren all earned starts last season on either offense, defense, or both. They and newcomers Kimani Mobley, Joe Betterman and Trevor Hills have Don Beebe thinking the Eagles' spread offense can again surpass 2,000 yards rushing and 3,000 passing.
Many of these athletes turn around and play defense, which obviously hasn't diminished team success. M.J. Zepeda and Smith are lockdown cornerbacks while safety Roberts has offers from North and South Dakota and Colgate. On the defensive line Walker made 84 tackles with a team-high 9 sacks last season.
Linebacker isn't flush with returners, but players like Betterman, Hills, Dan Brown and Chase Tomney should step in fine.
"I like what I've seen so far," Beebe said. "I think that we'll be competitive, and if we can get that chemistry and that leadership I think we can have a pretty good year."