As tough as the East Suburban Catholic traditionally has been, it became an even tougher football conference a year ago.
You can blame Benet for that.
Perennial powers Joliet Catholic and Marist were among the ESCC's six playoff qualifiers last season, but that list also included the surprising Redwings, who beat both teams to finish atop the standings with Marist at the end of the season.
Joliet Catholic and Marist remain favored to win the ESCC this season. Pesky Benet, meanwhile, doesn't plan on disappearing back into the muddled pack.
"I don't think we'll be sneaking up on anyone," said Benet coach Pat New, whose team claimed its first ESCC title and first conference title since 1998. "We may have surprised some people last year, but that won't happen this year."
In terms of individual talent, Benet matches everyone in the ESCC with junior quarterback Jack Beneventi, a Division I recruit who threw for 2,300 yards last year, and running back Porter Ontko, who rushed for nearly 1,000 yards.
Lineman Steve Hubona and two-way standout Nick Surges anchor a defense that needs to step up against the potent offenses elsewhere in the ESCC.
"We graduated some great players on that side of the ball," New said. "We'll be plugging in a lot of new starters on defense."
Marist, ranked fifth in The Associated Press Class 8A poll, and Joliet Catholic, third in 5A, both return championship-caliber talent.
The RedHawks bring back Notre Dame-bound receiver Nic Weishar and break in a new quarterback in Jack Donegan. Joliet Catholic may have graduated Ty Isaac, now at the University of Southern California, but expect Mike Ivlow to carry the load at running back.
With a big, experienced offensive line also returning, Joliet Catholic has the potential to dominate teams with its ground game. Again, Benet's defense must be physical enough to match up with linebackers Colin Geier and Sean Byrne.
The schedule makers weren't kind to Benet, leaving Marist and Joliet Catholic for the last two weeks of the season. Of course, the Redwings can't afford to look past their first four ESCC games.
The conference opener features a rematch against a St. Patrick team that handed Benet its lone regular-season loss. Marian Catholic, St. Viator and Nazareth await after the Shamrocks. Notre Dame returns one of the ESCC's top players in running back Chris James.
Unlike last season's surprise title run, Benet isn't the upstart. The Redwings are the target.
"Everyone's going to be circling our game on their schedules," New said. "To be honest, it's going to be nice to be in that position."
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