It's probably not a good idea to sell the Cary-Grove football team short.
Despite graduating a large portion of last year's team that reached the Class 6A state title game, third-year coach Brad Seaburg is far from waving a white flag for the defending Fox Valley Conference Valley Division champions.
"We have the athleticism and we're starting to see some leadership emerging," he said of his 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."
Junior linemen Michael Gomez (6-0, 249) and Trevor Ruhland (6-5, 263) are back with Gomez now in his third year as a varsity starter. Ruhland already has a scholarship offer from Minnesota.
Junior Jason Gregoire (6-4, 171) takes over at quarterback, but saw some injury relief duty last year. Senior Joe Scott (5-11, 181) is one of the key ball carriers in the flexbone option offense.
Only safety Matt Sutherland, defensive lineman Emerson Kersten and inside linebacker Matt Hughes (5-8, 174) are returning starters on the defensive end.
"The more these guys get reps, the more they're going to improve," said Seaburg. "Our ability to execute the offense, sustain drives and keep the football is what's going to determine it."
Huntley's only division loss last year came to Cary-Grove. Those two teams square off in Week 3. The Red Raiders are coming off a 6-4 season and a playoff appearance and now have more than 200 players in the program.
"I don't think the team could grow any more than what we did in the off-season," said second-year Huntley coach John Hart.
Leading the way for Huntley is senior defensive end-linebacker Brandon Dranka (6-2, 230), who Hart calls a Division I-caliber player. Returning senior safety Michael Andrews (5-11, 195) also will play a key role on the defensive side.
Senior Blake Jacobs (6-2, 185) takes over at quarterback, while tailback Jack Scalise (5-5, 150) and fullback Mitch Kawell (5-8, 190) both are back. Scalise ran for 568 yards and 6 scores last year. Inexperience on the offensive line will have to be overcome.
Like Huntley, Crystal Lake South also went 6-4 and qualified for the playoffs. The Gators allowed a division-low 193 points last year.
Senior quarterback Austin Rogers (6-2, 205) is back. He helped the Gators win their final 5 games of the regular season and will be protected by a huge, veteran offensive line that goes 6-4, 285, 5-10, 220, 6-1, 305 and 6-4, 295. South is shooting for its area-best 13th straight playoff appearance.
Rogers threw for 557 yards and 4 TDS and also ran for 321 yards and 5 TDs last year. Senior Chris Ivers (5-9, 180) will be a threat in the backfield after averaging 7.1 yards on 50 rushes last year.
South doesn't have the same type of returning experience on defense, but offensive players Brandon Lapak (6-0, 185), Rogers and Ivers could help out there.
"We've been looking at a lot of guys and rotating a lot of guys in (on defense)," said South coach Chuck Ahsmann. "We will have to wait and see how guys perform."
Jacobs made the playoffs last year at 5-4 and finished middle of the road in the division at 3-3.
The Golden Eagles, who made the playoffs in each of coach Bill Mitz's first three years, return key performers on offense who helped the team rack up an average of 28.7 points and nearly 400 yards of offense per contest.
That group includes all-area senior quarterback Bret Mooney, all-area receiver Hunter Williams and junior Josh Walker. Mooney, a Division I prospect, threw for an area-best 2,086 yards and 16 touchdowns. Williams caught 31 passes for 747 yards and 7 touchdowns.
While Jacobs posted 287 points, it also gave up 276, by far the highest of the top-tier teams in the division, thus defense will be a key focus this season.
Seniors Greg McLeod (5-11, 195, LB), Tommy Savage (5-10, 180, secondary) and Cody Ferencz (5-6, 140, safety) are back on defense. Matt DiFecchio (6-0, 190), who did not play last year, and junior Jamal Wilson (6-3, 245) will bolster that unit. Wilson is the cousin of New Orleans Saints defensive end Martez Wilson. Mitz said Wilson has the potential to play at the Division I level.
"We have a lot coming back," said Mitz. "I told our seniors, 'We walked in the doors with you guys so you're special to us.' This is our first group we've had all the way through and a lot of them have been in playoff games already."
Dundee-Crown, McHenry, and Prairie Ridge each went 3-6 overall last year and 1-5 in division play.
The Chargers, under the direction of coach Vito Andriola, are searching for their first playoff appearance in nearly 20 years.
D-C will have to go at it without third-year fullback Cody Lane, who is out with a torn ligament. He rushed for 1,247 yards and 18 touchdowns last year. Senior halfback Cordero Parson, junior fullback Caleb Parson, senior halfback T.J. Moss and an experienced offensive line are ready to step things up.
"This is the best backfield I've ever coached," said Andriola. "I like the way this team goes about its business for the most part. They're going to have a chance to be in position to be a playoff team."
The Chargers' defense also is improved. Returning starting linebackers Tim Schanmaier, Jordan Linson and Zach Thelen are all a year more experienced, as are defensive line returnees Xzavier Torres and Christian Ochoa. Safety Malik Dunner returns after playing his sophomore year at Elgin. Depth will have to be monitored with only 48 players on the varsity roster.
"I still have to remind these guys they are better than they think they are," said Andriola. "It's hard when they've never won to understand they can do this, but I believe they can. This is a pretty good group of football players."
Prairie Ridge is two years removed from winning the Class 6A state title. The Wolves return five starters to its double-wing offense, including seniors Kody Peterson (6-3, 210, WR), Steven Ladd (6-0, 175, RB), Bennett Tomlin (6-0, 250, C), Shane Evans (6-5, 290, T) and junior Chris Dolleton (5-8, 220, G). Evans is a Division I recruit.
The Wolves played four players at quarterback last year due to injuries, but will look to either senior Oliver Kremer or junior Brett Covalt.
Seven players return on the defensive end, including three-year starting defensive end Austin Nirva (6-1, 215) and three-year starting inside linebacker Colin Leverenz (6-0, 200).
"Last season was a very disappointing one in that we suffered so many injuries that it was hard to get any continuity going on our offense or defense," said Wolves coach Chris Schremp. "We return four players who played significant minutes in the state-championship game, so we have players with several years of experience ready to lead the pack. We have a nice balance of athletes on both sides of the football. We feel confident that if we stay healthy, we will have a successful 2013 campaign."
Numbers are up at McHenry where second-year coach Dave D'Angelo feels his team can make strides in the tough FVC Valley this year.
Back for the Warriors are seniors Luis Hernandez (6-4, 245, TE-DE), Thomas Hellios (5-7, 160, LB-FB), Payton Lykins (5-9, 155, S-WB), Brad Mischke (6-1, 250, C-NG), Cody Patchett (5-11, 170, OLB), Kyle Postal (6-4, 170, WR) and Gino Smith (5-9, 160, CB).
"Last year, the goal was to become competitive again," said D'Angelo. "This year the goal is to make a run in the very tough FVC valley and make the playoffs."