The boys of fall were greeted by muggy August air as high school football practices began throughout the Fox Valley and across the state on Monday.
And the players loved every sweat-dripping second of it.
"It's extremely exciting to be out here," St. Edward quarterback Joseph Mullen said during an afternoon practice at Elgin's Abbott Park. "It's great being with this group of guys. We're all competitive and ready to work. It's going to be a good time."
Due to heat acclimatization rules adopted by the Illinois High School Association for early season practices, players competed in helmets during sessions lasting no longer than three hours by rule. Teams were allowed an additional one-hour walk through following a two-hour recovery period.
Players will add shoulder pads on Wednesday, though the same time limitations remain through Friday.
Preparation for the season-opening weekend of August 29-30 intensifies on Saturday. That's when teams don full pads for the first time and can practice for up to five hours (with no practice exceeding three hours). Next week, rules allow for such double-sessions on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Teams are limited to three hours of practice and a one-hour walk through next Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
"With the alternating days of doubles and singles, it's a sensible practice plan and it really works out pretty well for us," Cary-Grove coach Brad Seaburg said. "And it's really nice because we've added two days of practice. If anything, it's really kind of how it used to be, where the Saturday is your first day of hitting."
Seaburg's Trojans return 16 starters and are among the teams expected to compete for the Class 6A title this season. The players opened camp in the morning by completing the now-ubiquitous concussion baseline testing in the school's computer lab. In the afternoon they faced another kind of test in the daunting Miami mile: 16 timed 100-meter sprints. Practice concluded with lifting weights.
It was a different scene at Dundee-Crown in the late afternoon, where first-year coach Michael Steinhaus and his staff directed the Chargers through a high-tempo, highly organized practice that lasted three hours.
Approximately 50 varsity players warmed up and stretched on the field next to the D-C Bowl. The players then broke down into two offensive units and alternated running D-C's base offense against a scout team holding dummies. Little teaching was necessary; the Chargers were merely reacquainting themselves with plays they ran repeatedly during summer camp.
"We're running our base offense right away," said Steinhaus, who was hired last April after former coach Vito Andriola resigned to take the vacant head coaching position at Grant. "Obviously, it's the first day of camp so we're going to do some tackling drills and all the good stuff we always do, but it's really amazing how much football they get in during the summer."
The Chargers hustled from drill to drill as if unwilling to waste a second of valuable practice time. The players adjusted to the pace set by Steinhaus, just as they've adjusted to the feisty nature of their new coach, himself a Dundee-Crown graduate who went on to play at Ball State under coach Brady Hoke, now at Michigan.
"Everything's different with him," senior safety/running back Malik Dunner, who committed to Ball State over the summer, said of Steinhaus. "Everything we do is a competition. We just got new uniforms because he wants us to look the best in the conference. Everything is a competition with him. He makes everything we do fun. Everyone's having more fun."
Fun is what Mullen and his St. Edward teammates hope to have plenty of in their new conference. No longer a member of the ultracompetitive Suburban Christian Conference, the Green Wave shift this season to the Metro Suburban Conference's East Division.
State contenders like Montini, Marian Central, Aurora Christian, St. Francis and Marmion are rivals of the past. St. Edward's schedule now includes conference games against Elmwood Park, Guerin, Chicago Christian, Walther Christian and Ridgewood. That bodes well for a St. Edward program under coach Mike Rolando that in the last five seasons has gone 25-24 and made three playoff appearances.
"If the players do what they need to do and we do our homework as coaches, we should be able to compete in all 9 games," said Rolando, whose 33-man varsity roster is the largest in his decade at the Elgin school. "Now, we could go 0-9 or 9-0, but at least you look at that (schedule) and you can be optimistic. You don't like looking at your schedule and saying 'If we don't beat Genoa, we're not going to be in the playoffs,' and that's really the way it's been the last couple of years."