Champions don't shy away from challenges.
As Naperville Central stormed through a surprise run to last year's Class 8A football title, the Redhawks had to navigate a minefield of nine straight playoff opponents. They'll play seven straight to start this season, but with one major difference.
Now the target's on their backs.
"They know the challenge ahead and they know they have a target on their back," said Redhawks coach Mike Stine. "They're ready."
They're ready thanks to a nucleus of key contributors to the title run. Receivers Michael Kolzow, committed to Illinois State, and Emmanuel Rugamba, offered by Illinois, combined for 84 catches and more than 1,000 yards.
Running back Kevin Clifford rushed for 776 yards although, like last year, the Redhawks return no starting linemen.
Another huge change is obvious. Quarterback Jake Kolbe, who threw for 2,246 yards, graduated. That leaves junior Conor Joyce, who enters the season as the starter, and David Wesolowski to fill the void.
Naperville Central boasts DuPage County's top running back-receiver combination, but rebuilding the line and developing consistent quarterback play is critical.
"We feel we can win with (Joyce or Wesolowski) at quarterback," Stine said. "They're both great athletes. When one's not playing quarterback, they'll be on the field somewhere."
For all the firepower on offense, the Redhawks' real strength comes on defense, specifically in the back seven with Iowa State-bound linebacker Bobby McMillen and fellow linebacker Dan DelGrosso. Kolzow and Rugamba will play both ways to strengthen the secondary.
Like on offense, the Redhawks must rebuild the defensive line. Shifting Joe Schweikart from linebacker will help.
Naperville Central won a state title without winning the DuPage Valley Conference, and both goals remain.
The Redhawks have their own targets in mind.
"It's an honor to have that target," Stine said. "We want people to know they're playing us."
Coach: Mike Stine (ninth year, 56-32).
2013 record: 11-3, 4-3 tied for fourth in DuPage Valley Conference.
Top players: Bobby McMillen (LB, 6-2, 220, sr.); Michael Kolzow (WR-DB, 6-3, 185, sr.); Emmanuel Rugamba (WR-DB, 6-2, 185, jr.); Dan DelGrosso (LB, 6-2, 215, sr.); Kevin Clifford (RB, 5-9, 195, sr.); Joe Schweikart (DL, 6-2, 215, sr.); Cam Conners (DB, 5-10, 185, sr.); Conor Joyce (QB, 6-1, 210, jr.); David Wesolowski (QB, 6-2, 170, sr.).
Fri, 8/29 Naperville Central at Waubonsie Vall. 7:30 p.m.
Fri, 9/5 Naperville Central at Neuqua Valley 7:30 p.m.
Sat, 9/13 Naperville Central at Hubbard 6 p.m.
Fri, 9/19 Naperville Central at WW South 7:30 p.m.
Fri, 9/26 Glenbard North at Naperville Central 7:30 p.m.
Fri, 10/3 Naperville Central at Naperville North 7:30 p.m.
Fri, 10/10 Wheaton North at Naperville Central 7:30 p.m.
Fri, 10/17 Naperville Central at Lake Park 7:30 p.m.
Fri, 10/24 WW South at Naperville Central 7:30 p.m.