All signs point to 2014 being one of those special seasons for the Cary-Grove football program.
Following a 7-4 campaign in which the Trojans lost in a second-round playoff game by a touchdown to Rockford Boylan (12-2), they return 16 starters with a wealth of experience. Three returnees -- safety/slot back Matt Sutherland, fourth-year varsity lineman Michael Gomez and three-year lineman Trevor Ruhland, a Notre Dame recruit -- started in 2012 for Cary-Grove's Class 6A runner-up.
Matt Sutherland, son of longtime Cary-Grove defensive coordinator Don Sutherland, said one of his favorite childhood memories was having a chance to run around on the sideline at Memorial Stadium in Champaign when the Trojans played Libertyville for the Class 7A title in 2004. Now a senior, he and his teammates hope to finish this season on the winner's podium at the same venue come November.
"Ever since (2004) I've known that I wanted to be in the position I am, where we have a chance to go downstate," said Sutherland, who plays safety and slot back. "We've just got to work hard, keep on improving every day."
The Trojans have the potential to field one of the better offenses in program history considering they return most of the players from a unit that averaged 22.6 points and 300-plus yards per game. The triple option attack is again led by 6-foot-3 senior quarterback Jason Gregoire, whose first varsity action came in 2012 when he started several games late in the season in place of injured starter Quinn Baker.
A year ago, Gregoire, a two-time all-area basketball player, rushed for 500 yards and 11 touchdowns and threw for over 800 yards and 7 scores.
"He's very smart," Cary-Grove coach Brad Seaburg said. "He really knows what we want to do and how we want to execute things offensively. To have a guy who has that kind of intellect, first of all, is real important in our offense. And then to have a guy as athletic as him at quarterback is nice, too."
The offensive line is a team strength, led by three talented returnees. Center Scotty Topole (6-4, 240) started every game last season. Gomez (6-0, 270), a guard, added 20 pounds in the off-season and is in the best shape of his life, Seaburg said.
Then there's Ruhland, a 6-4, 275-pound force at tackle. The most-recruited lineman in school history is back at full strength after a shoulder injury slowed him at the tail end of the 2013 season and forced him to miss the basketball season.
Prodigy Tyler Pennington returns at fullback after a breakthrough freshman debut. He was installed as the team's starting fullback in Week 3 and responded by rushing for 1,015 yards and 8 touchdowns on 176 carries (5.8 avg). Pennington added 20 pounds in the off-season and "his confidence is high," Seaburg said. "He's running hard and he's gotten a lot stronger."
Senior Zach McQuade (35 carries, 270 yards, 2 TD) and junior Kevin Hughes (18 carries, 114 yards) each gained experience at slot back spelling Sutherland (80 carries, 395 yards, 3 TD). They will be joined in the backfield by speedy senior Larkin Hanselmann, who played split end last season. Senior Jimmy Freskos will play split end this year. Sophomore tight end Erik Norberg (6-2, 200) could have an immediate impact for an already deep offense.
The 3-3-5 hybrid defense returns Sutherland at rover, Hanselmann at free safety, senior linebacker Travis Meyerson and senior linemen Ray DiMatteo and Gomez. Ruhland will see time on the defensive line in certain situations. Seniors George Hartke and Willie Hartke also return. Both make the switch from cornerback to inside linebacker. Pennington will see significant action at linebacker, too.
Seaburg realizes high expectations come with having an experienced, senior-heavy team. He says they are ready to meet that challenge.
"Every team should go into the season thinking they have a chance to get better throughout the year and put themselves in position to win whatever they want to win,"the fourth-year head coach said. "We've had a taste of it here, being runner-up in 2012 and winning it all in 2009, so our kids know what our chances are and what's out there. But we also know that can't happen without beating the teams we need to beat on our schedule.
"That's the most important thing: keeping our focus on improving every week. I think everything else will take care of itself."