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Crystal Lake South coach Chuck Ahsmann is hoping last season taught his football team a lesson about getting off to a good start.
The Gators had to sweat out a playoff berth in 2012 after losing 3 of their first 4 games against good competition. They rallied to win 5 straight once Austin Rogers took over at quarterback and found his groove.
With Rogers (6-foot-2, 205 pounds) back for his senior season behind a huge, veteran offensive line, the Gators aim to blaze a less-thrilling path to their area-best 13th consecutive playoff appearance.
"Every year we hope we can compete for a conference title, and last year we certainly thought we could but we stumbled early," said fourth-year coach Chuck Ahsmann, whose team won the outright Fox Valley Conference Valley Division in 2010 and shared it in 2011. "We just started too slowly against some tough teams. We're hoping to start off fast this year. We hope we can compete."
Rogers, also an all-area basketball guard, can hurt opponents with his arm or his leg. Last season he completed 54 of 113 attempts for 557 yards and 4 touchdowns, and he rushed 70 times for 321 yards (4.6 avg.) and 5 touchdowns. He was intercepted 4 times.
Senior Chris Ivers (5-9, 180) becomes the main ball carrier and can play either tailback or fullback. Ivers demonstrated big-play ability last season by rushing 50 times for 354 yards and 3 touchdowns, a 7.1-yard average per carry.
Another key offensive figure happens to be a defensive mainstay. Senior Brandon Lapak (6-0, 185) started the last two seasons at cornerback. He'll still play corner but may develop into Rogers' top wide receiver.
The offensive line is typical for CL South. Translation: the Gators are once again huge up front. Four starters return. Senior left guard Pat Walsh (6-2, 240) is a three-year starter; so is senior left tackle Mike Franke (6-4, 285). Junior center Alex "Bubba" Gardeck (5-10, 220) and junior right guard Kyle Hedge (6-1, 305) also return. They are joined by junior right tackle Kyle Loupee (6-4, 295).
The defense lacks overall experience unless a few key athletes play both ways. Besides Lapak at cornerback, Rogers will likely see playing time at corner or safety depending on the situation, and Ivers will sometimes pull double duty as an outside linebacker.
Other defenders who rotated in last year include nose guard Steve Anchor (6-0, 205) and inside linebacker Travis Dziedzic.
"We don't return as many on defense so it's been competitive in practice," Ahsmann said. "We've been looking at a lot of guys and rotating a lot of guys in. That may continue through the first game. We will have to wait and see how guys perform."
The Gators do expect to play their home games on campus despite the ongoing controversy surrounding the newly constructed home bleachers at Ken Bruhn Field, Ahsmann said, beginning with next Friday's season opener against Marian Central. The Hurricanes defeated CL South 31-0 in the season opener a year ago.