This may be a transition in more ways than one.
Hired by St. Francis as a first-year football coach after the last six years as Marist's offensive coordinator, Mike Fitzgerald succeeds veteran Greg Purnell. The retired coach's Wing-T offense helped win the 2008 Class 5A title, but when Fitzgerald tells his Spartans that last year two Marist receivers caught at least 90 passes -- one of them, Notre Dame freshman tight end Nic Weishar, set Illinois' all-time receptions record -- "their eyes light up."
In 2013 returning receiver Matt Hanson and graduate Adam Hart led St. Francis with 13 catches apiece.
Fitzgerald plans multiple looks within a spread offense run at various tempos. Emphasizing speed, the goal is to make defenses account for each potential ball carrier.
"I think we have a great set of skill players who fit the scheme," said Fitzgerald, also heading St. Francis' move to the Chicago Catholic League.
Last season St. Francis' offense centered around all-state running back James Butler, now at Nevada; two-year starter T.J. Jackson transferred to West Aurora. A line of returners such as Hanson, Jack Ahern, Chris Smith, tight end Nate Zito and quarterbacks Clint Bobowski and Nick Dama contributed. Fitzgerald sees Steve Fassnacht, who ran for 158 yards and a touchdown, as a hidden gem.
Others like versatile Will Purdom and receivers Michael Shaw, A.J. Fernandez and Michael Beach look to make a mark. The offensive line begins in good shape with returning starters Michael Riley, Cole Cunningham and John Vargyas, who at linebacker made 82 tackles, 1 off the team lead.
Defensive end Quinn Calcagno has a Hillsdale College offer and other college interest. Returning linebackers Vargyas, Zito and Tom Petrando and lineman Mike Riley provide a solid core. Ahern's 2 interceptions led last year's squad.
Improving depth on a squad of about 40 players is a focus. It sounds like the Spartans have the moxie to get it done.
"Our biggest strength is senior leadership," Fitzgerald said.
Coach: Mike Fitzgerald (first year).
2013 record: 5-5, 3-4, tied for fifth in Suburban Christian Blue.
Top players: Jack Ahern (WR-DB-P, 5-8, 160, sr.); Quinn Calcagno (DL, 6-5, 220, sr.); Cole Cunningham (OL-DL, 6-0, 270, sr.); Steve Fassnacht (RB-DB, 5-8, 185, sr.); Matt Hanson (WR, 6-1, 175, sr.); Tom Petrando (TE-LB, 6-1, 185), sr.); Mike Riley (OL-DL, 6-0, 195, sr.); Michael Shaw (WR-DB, 6-2, 180, sr.); John Vargyas (OL-LB, 5-11, 210, sr.); Nate Zito (FB-TE-LB, 6-1, 200, sr.).
Fri, 8/29 St. Francis at Menomonee (Wis.) 7:30 p.m.
Fri, 9/5 Plainfield South at St. Francis 7:30 p.m.
Fri, 9/12 Marmion at St. Francis 7:30 p.m.
Fri, 9/19 Brother Rice at St. Francis 7:30 p.m.
Sat, 9/27 St. Francis at Hale Franciscan 6:30 p.m.
Fri, 10/3 St. Francis at St. Laurence 7:30 p.m.
Fri, 10/10 Montini at St. Francis 7:30 p.m.
Fri, 10/17 St. Francis at Chicago DeLaSalle 7:30 p.m.
Sat, 10/25 St. Francis at Fenwick 1 p.m.