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Cary-Grove was a senior-dominated football team last fall when the Trojans won their first 13 games before falling to Crete-Monee in the Class 6A championship game, 33-26.
This year's squad returns few starters on either side of the ball, but third-year coach Brad Seaburg believes his team, though undersized at a few positions, is capable of reaching the playoffs just as Cary-Grove teams did the seasons after title-game appearances in 2004 and 2009.
"We've got the athleticism and we're starting to see some leadership emerging," Seaburg said of the junior-heavy lineup. "On paper and after seeing what we've seen in practice with our enthusiasm, effort and execution so far, we feel like we should be able to compete for a conference championship for sure.
"But there are a lot of things that go into it. You have to stay healthy, you have to improve every week and you have to stay consistent. I think the biggest thing about the schedule we have is you really have to have that consistent effort for nine weeks because every team is a challenge."
Cary-Grove's young lineup faces a tough slate to open the season with consecutive nonconference road games at 2012 playoff qualifiers Wheaton North (10-2), Lake Zurich (10-3) and the league opener at up-and-coming Huntley (6-4), a team the Trojans tagged with its lone Fox Valley Conference Valley Division loss last season.
The offense returns two standout junior linemen: Michael Gomez (6-0, 249) and Trevor Ruhland (6-5, 263). Gomez has been a starter since he stepped on campus as a freshman. Ruhland already has an offer from Minnesota. They will be joined by junior center Scott Topole (6-5, 262), senior guard Brandon Caccavallo and senior tackle Johnny Klodnicki (5-11, 216).
The line will attempt to carve running room for an entirely new backfield. Taking over at quarterback in the flexbone option offense is junior Jason Gregoire (6-4, 171). An all-area basketball player last winter, Gregoire gained experience late last season when starting quarterback Quinn Baker missed 3 games due to a hand injury. Gregoire's role is evolving.
"Everybody he started with in the backfield last year is gone," Seaburg said. "Now his role has changed. He's going to have to bring a little more leadership. He's going to be counted on maybe to make more plays, whereas, last year he was able to rely on the older guys. He's doing a nice job and improving quite a bit. Like a lot of juniors, sometimes the learning curve is exponential."
Senior Joe Scott (5-11, 181) will be one of the key ball carriers. He replaced the injured Ryan Mahoney in the state championship game and gained 32 yards on 6 carries. The fullback position was still up for grabs deep into fall practice between senior Joey Maxwell (6-1, 174) and sophomore JD Byrne (6-0, 171).
Junior Zach McQuade was set to play H-back, but an injury this week will keep him out of action for a few weeks, his coach said. Safety Matt Sutherland will step up in the meantime.
The inexperienced but speedy defense returns only three players. Other than Sutherland, defensive lineman Emerson Kersten (5-10, 169) and inside linebacker Matt Hughes (5-8, 174) are the only returning starters.
Does Cary-Grove have what it takes to defend its outright FVC title and return to the 6A tournament?
"I'd say we're progressing at the pace at which we should be," Seaburg said. "We're not where we need to be as far as where we know our offense should be, but we're progressing in the right direction. I think the more these guys get reps, the more they're going to improve. Our ability to execute the offense, sustain drives and keep the football is what's going to determine it."