There is no superstar on this year's Crystal Lake South football team, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing.
In the absence of graduated quarterback/receiver/safety Austin Rogers, a two-time all-area football and basketball player, the Gators will approach things a bit differently as they try to rebound from last year's rare playoff miss.
CL South's streak of 12 straight playoff appearances ended in 2013 because the Gators struggled to win close games. They went 2-4 in contests decided by a touchdown or less. To start winning the close ones and make a playoff return, the post-Rogers offense must find ways to score while the more experienced defense keeps them in games.
"We've always been up there in the top five defenses in McHenry County," said junior Alex Gardeck, who switches to linebacker this season but will still see action as a center. "We like to play tough defense. On the offensive side of the ball, we're going to try to ground and pound, gain some yards and wear out some defenses."
"We'll have to have three or four guys do some things," CL South coach Chuck Ahsmann said of making up for Rogers' production. "Our quarterback will have to do some things, we'll have to run the ball with some different guys and throw the ball to some different guys."
Senior Payton Minogue (6-0, 190 pounds) takes over at quarterback. He got his feet wet at the position last fall whenever Rogers would shift to wide receiver. Minogue completed 6 passes, 4 for touchdowns.
Minogue will have the option of throwing to 6-foot-5 junior tight end Wes Buckner, a basketball player, along with versatile senior Tyler Baker (8 receptions, 147 yards, TD). Baker is a do-everything type who also kicks, reminiscent of 2011 CLS standout Brad Walovitch.
Fullback Kyle Bartusch will get a high percentage of carries after playing a backup role last season. Also a basketball player, the sure-handed senior made 12 catches for 212 yards and 4 touchdowns last year. Junior Corey Sheehan and senior Dan McSweeny will each see time at tailback.
The offensive line lost an experienced veteran when two-year starter Kyle Hedge (6-2, 305) -- a thrower who finished fourth in the shot put among 17-18-year-olds at the USTAF Junior Olympics in July -- opted out of football to focus on that sport.
Still, the line returns a solid veteran in left tackle Kyle Loupee (6-4, 300). Gardeck will still play along the offensive line in bursts. Otherwise, the line is comprised of varsity newcomers.
"Offensive line is a lot of timing and technique. We have some young guys and some new guys so we're working hard on timing," Ahsmann said.
The defense is infused with experienced players on the line and in the secondary. Ends Josh Andrae (6-2, 240) and Steven Anchor (6-1, 215) return to a defense that a year ago forced 14 turnovers and held opponents to averages of 16 points and 263 yards per game. Senior Cordel Breitenstein joins the three-man front at nose tackle.
Three secondary jobs are manned by senior returnees: Baker and captains Alex Reich and Joe Ahsmann. That group will get, perhaps, its toughest best test of the season in Week 1, when the Gators visit Marian Central and future Miami (Ohio) quarterback Billy Bahl.
"I'm really excited," Joe Ahsmann said of the season ahead. "It's a lot better leadership this year. We're more of a team. I'm hoping that leadership and that family feel we have will help us come together as a team better."
"Our senior and junior classes are meshing together real well," Chuck Ahsmann said. "We're playing as a team. I like what I see so far."