Reloading. That's what it seems the Upstate Eight Conference's top dogs are doing.
In the Valley Division, defending champion Neuqua Valley doesn't return a slew of starters from its best team in program history, a Class 8A semifinalist. Yet Wildcats coach Bill Ellinghaus thinks his boys belong among the area's best. They believe it, too.
Waubonsie Valley, edged out of the playoffs by Neuqua in the quarterfinals, likewise graduated a ton but brings back some key individuals and lots of speed. Bartlett will try to elbow its way up top.
In the River Division, Batavia seeks a third straight unbeaten conference title. The Bulldogs are loaded -- and may still be challenged by the St. Charles teams with a push by Geneva despite a lack of returning experience.
This is the last season before wholesale change in the UEC. Already Lake Park has left the conference for the DuPage Valley, swapping spots with West Chicago in the Valley Division.
"We're just looking for new challenges," said West Chicago coach Bill Bicker.
In the fall of 2014, Glenbard East and West Aurora will arrive and presumably West Chicago will move to the River Division. Rumor has had Neuqua and Waubonsie both heading to the DuPage Valley, but counter-rumor has suggested no one wants that.
"I think we need to be considered one of the top teams, I really do," Neuqua's Ellinghaus said. "I don't think that we're going to run away from that."
If his offensive linemen have any technique at all they could pave people over, as 285-pound returning starter Sai Klein is among seven of them weighing more than 250 pounds. This presents a possible field day for Wildcats running backs T.J. Scruggs and Nolan Dean -- the former relieved all-state graduate Joey Rhattigan last season, the latter was a starting linebacker as a sophomore.
Complicating things some was a three-way quarterback race, but whoever takes the ball gets the pleasure of targeting Illinois-bound receiver Mikey Dudek. Blessed with 4.3 speed, Dudek caught 46 passes for 991 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, adding 412 yards and 2 touchdowns on kick returns.
"I think the top of the conference is going to be very good again," Ellinghaus said. "I think you've got to include Waubonsie in there, I think they're going to be an excellent team this year. I think Bartlett is going to get their way back into the mix. Metea Valley is an up-and-coming school, but I saw them over the summer and thought they were much improved."
Waubonsie Valley coach Paul Murphy, who brings 149 career victories into the season, called returning back Demario Webb, receivers Christian Gibbs, Keaton Casey and Devin Strickland and sprinter-types Jon Fizer and Tony Durns the fastest offensive core he's had.
Here the quarterback spot is more set with quarterback Jack Eddy there. He's got three returning starters on the line. On the other side the Warriors' defense is headed by three-year starter Hugh Griffin at middle linebacker.
Bartlett, the 2011 Valley champion, has experience on the line with Devin Jatszak, Nathan Baer and Ben Wiley in front of quarterback Jordan Flint. Clint Zierke figures in as a go-to tight end for a team that must replace the dynamic running back Aaron Everson.
"This team has a lot to prove this year," Meaney said, and the physical Hawks can typically back up statements like that.
Metea Valley returns one of the top quarterbacks in the division in Blaise Bell. Twice last season as a junior Bell surpassed 300 yards passing in a game.
There were a flurry of coaching changes in the league. South Elgin's Dale Schabert retired after an illustrious career, succeeded by Pat Pistorio. The receiving specialist played for Schabert at Larkin, made his way back to his mentor on the South Elgin staff and has also coached for Harper and Lake Forest colleges and the Chicago Slaughter.
In the River Division, former Elgin assistant Kyle Rohde replaces Dave Bierman and will try to get the most out of the skilled trio of Jaylen Clemons, Dennis Keophilalay and quarterback Ryan Sitter. Lisle Senior High graduate Mark Orszula comes to Streamwood after five seasons as Westmont's head coach.
At St. Charles North former Elk Grove defensive coordinator Rob Pomazak takes over for retired Hall of Famer Mark Gould. Pomazak is a fast learner.
"You can't take a week off in the River, you really can't," he said.
In his case particularly in alternating weeks. Starting with the nonconference opener against his former team, the biggies in St. Charles North's quest for its first playoff appearance since 2009 will be the crosstown game at St. Charles East in Week 3, Geneva two weeks later, Batavia in Week 7 and Valley crossover South Elgin in Week 9.
Batavia is the River's team to beat. Coach Dennis Piron returns his starting quarterback, Micah Coffey, 1,200-yard rusher Anthony Scaccia, starting offensive linemen Mitch Krusz, Pat Gamble and Connor McKeehan plus a swarming, punishing, experienced defense headed by a senior who may have a monster year, 6-foot-3, 220-pound linebacker Austin Thielk.
"We're pretty good," Piron said.
Pomazak will counter with a pair of Division I commits, 288-pound left tackle Chase Gianacakos (Michigan State) and tight end-defensive end Garrett Johnson (Ball State). Two-way starter Evan Kurtz, cornerback Jonathan Elliott, quarterback Erik Miller and linebacker Reece Conroyd -- who should become the North Starts' all-time tackles leader by Week 3 -- head a hungry group.
St. Charles East went 6-4 last season, and though it graduated key components from a 6-4 team it returns many as well. Among the bounty are starting linemen Ben Smith and Brennan Bosch, linebackers Jon Finn and Michael Candre and another offensive trio in quarterback Jimmy Mitchell, running back Erik Anderson and freight-train hitter Brannon Barry at receiver and defensive back.
"We're still young, and I think those guys (Batavia, St. Charles North) have a lot more experience than us, and hopefully we can catch up and hang on," said Saints coach Mike Fields.
Fields learned the art of underselling his team from among the best, as an assistant to Rob Wicinski at Geneva.
The Vikings' veteran coach is a realist, seeing he returns only Billy Douds on defense and the trio of quarterback Daniel Santacaterina and receivers Pace Temple and Kyle Brown on offense.
Yes, the lines are not experienced but Wicinski and offensive line coach Gale Gross can still roll out a group of seniors to open cracks for new tailback T.J. Miller. Defensively, Joe Boenzi will search and destroy as he moves from starting fullback to linebacker.
A schedule that starts with Oswego, Wheaton North and Batavia will quickly get the Vikings playing varsity speed.
"It's one of those things where we've got to grow fast," Wicinski said.
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