If defense wins games Hampshire's football team should be feeling rather good about itself.
Whip-Purs coach Dan Cavanaugh, the dean of Fox Valley area football coaches in his 25th season, likes the makeup of his defense, which returns plenty of talent and experience up front in Leighton Sheetz (6-0, 275, DT), Mike Gibas (6-2, 240), Matt Kielbasa (6-2, 250, DE) and Steve Kirkwood (5-10, 185, DE).
Inside linebackers Brandan Swanson (6-0, 170) and Ben Bednarek (5-10, 210) also are back.
"I'm really happy with our inside six people," said Cavanaugh. "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."
Senior Nick Kielbasa (5-9, 180) returns in the backfield and is joined by senior Chris Calvin (5-7, 150) and junior Mason Fluery (6-1, 185).
Junior Nick Mohlman (5-9, 160) and senior Mitch Lundry (5-9, 150) are competing for the quarterback job.
"We always want to run the ball first," said Cavanaugh. "We've got experience in the backfield and some big, physical guys up front, which we haven't had the last couple of years."
Hampshire is looking for its first winning record and first playoff appearance since 2008.
"They're hungry to get back in the playoffs," said Cavanaugh.
Grayslake North is the defending Fox champion after going 6-0 in division play and 8-2 overall.
Either sophomore Merrick Gentile or junior Titus Booker will replace graduated standout A.J. Fish at quarterback. Booker rushed for 764 yards and 12 TDs last year en route to earning al-conference honors.
"We're going to pass and run about 50/50," said North coach Steve Wood. "I don't see us changing too much from what it's been in the past."
Juniors Dan Krajewski (6-5, 300) and Scott Humphrey (5-10, 300) are part of an offensive line that includes senior tackles Ian Pearce (6-2, 200) and Brandon Bock and senior guard Mike Suarez.
All-conference performance Mike McGrath is part of an experienced secondary.
"As a program, I'm really excited where we are," said Wood.
Crystal Lake Central went 5-1 in the division and 9-3 overall en route to reaching the quarterfinals for the first time in school history (losing 7-0 to Cary-Grove in the quarters). The Tigers allowed a division-low 154 points last year.
Back for Central are seniors Kyle Lavand (6-0, 190), QB, Connor Hines (5-8,200, LB-RB), Nathan Talbott (5-10, 190, LB), Cody Hodges (6-2, 280, OT), Josh Mugler (5-10, 200, DE), Jack Ortner (6-0, 170, WR), Luke Francis (6-4, 200, S) and junior Ryan Williams (5-11, 195, RB). Hines and Talbott were all-conference selections last year.
"We're looking to build on the last three seasons," said Central coach Matt Fralick.
Woodstock North went to the second round of the playoffs and went 4-2 in division play. Seniors Grant Wade (5-9, 175) and Alex Mitchell (5-9, 170) lead the way in the backfield, and double up at linebacker positions on defense. Senior Jake Schnulle (DB) and junior Cody Barnes (5-11, 230, OL-DL) also will be key contributors.
Wade and Mitchell combined for 6 touchdowns last season, while Barnes is the team's nose tackle and a strong run-stopper. Schnulle returns in the secondary after making a critical interception in the playoffs against Sterling.
"Our outlook is to be as competitive as we can be week in and week out," said North coach Jeff Schroeder. "We have athletic ability. If the team gels, then I think we can have a pretty successful season."
Town neighbor Woodstock is coming off a 4-5, 3-3 campaign. Seniors Nick Rogers (6-2, 246, RB), Mike Santucci (5-9, 175, RB), Alan Hafer (5-10, 165, QB), Augie Scott (5-11, 190, G) and Anthony Martys (5-10, 160, WR) return on offense.
Santucci ran for 538 yards and 9 TDs last year, while Rogers gained 432 yards and scored 7 touchdowns. Hafer passed for 807 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Scott (LB) and classmates Preston Tio (5-11, 150, CB), Rogers (6-2, 246, DL) and Jordan Summer (6-1, 165, FS) are back on defense. Tio had 2 interceptions last year.
Woodstock's coaching staff likes the returning experience on offense (3 returnees in the backfield), overall team speed and how the defense is starting to jell each practice.
"Our team is hungry for a chance to play into November," assistant coach Todd Anderson said. "With a great core of returning players, our focus this season is to make the playoffs."
Grayslake Central won 2 games last year, but second-year head coach Ben Ault feels his team has improved and learned from its struggles last year.
Quarterback Alex Lennartz is back after missing the second half of last year with a knee injury.
"We're looking a lot better than we did last year," said Ault. "Any time you switch offenses (to an option offense last year), you always have growing pains. These kids having that second year in the system makes a huge difference in knowing what they're doing and having confidence in what they're dong."
Senior Kacey Adams and junior Cam Schwartz are in the backfield, along with Jaron Armiger, Winslow Powell and Drew Garbett, who will share fullback duties. Adams ran on the Ram's state-championship-winning 800 relay team last spring.
Garbett and fellow senior Erik Infante are back on the defensive line.
Johnsburg failed to win a game last year and will leave the conference after this school year to rejoin the Big Northern Conference. The Skyhawks have had one winning record since joining the loop in 2006.
The Skyhawks are paced on offense by seniors Ben Stillwell (6-3, 210, TE) and Zach Kinney (6-4, 300, OT), juniors Nick Brengman (5-11, 185, QB) and Eric Wagner (6-1, 200, G) and sophomore John Conroy (6-0, 250, G).
Stillwell (LB), Conory (NT), Wagner (DE) and junior Brad Iverson (6-0, 175, FS) anchor the defense.
"We're very experienced from last season," said Johnsburg coach Michael Maloney. "We return multiple starters on both sides of the ball from last season. We hope to compete with the best teams on our schedule."