This could be the breakthrough year that Wheeling and coach Brent Pearlman have been waiting for.
Wheeling has not made the state playoffs since 2008 and has only qualified twice in the last 17 years. Yet there is reason for optimism this season, despite just finishing 2-7 last year.
The Wildcats return the area's second leading rusher season in Isaac Branch, who gained 991 yards on 174 carries for a 5.7 average. Branch has been drawing plenty of interest with his speed and inside running ability.
Amani Dennis is back at quarterback after rushing for 329 yards and throwing for another 858. Pearlman, who is in his third year as head coach at Wheeling, is expecting big things from Dennis this year.
"He has really grown the past two seasons," Pearlman said. "He has really taken command of the offense."
Despite being one of the few area teams returning its backfield, Pearlman is still cautious.
"We will see," Pearlman said. "We have some talent but we are still struggling with the mental part of competing. It will be good when we get to hit someone else besides ourselves in practice.
"It comes down to developing that competitive mind. We have taken some steps, but I am not sure we are there yet."
Tyler Urban, who 29 catches for 416 yards, is back at wide receiver along with Matt Vollmer and Max Chung while Jalen Dennis, Charlie Zettek, Zach Lett and Ola Arogundade will be at the slot.
While the backfield is all set, the offensive line is still in flux. Pearlman has nine players competing for five spots. Juan Hernandez, Dan Gawron, Boo Chahal, Marty Falkiner, Kyle Hall, Yony Medina, Wulfgang Rankenberg and Yaryk Koshil all figure to be playing at some point.
"Some combination of those guys will start," Pearlman said. "Them, along with the defensive line, have showed the most growth this summer. They just got better each week."
Evan Brown, Oscar Del Rio, Allen Butler and Hernandez are all seniors on the defensive line while Kole Longsworth, who is a junior, will also be competing for playing time.
The linebackers are a young group. Dylan Draka and Peter Allen-Schuetz, who are both juniors, and sophomore Johnny Kappel will be joined by seniors Falkiner, Chung and Vollmer.
The defensive backfield appears to be the strength of the defense and has plenty of athleticsim. Jalen Dennis, Urban, Zettek and Branch will be tracking down opponents' receivers.
Wheeling opens the season by hosting Mundelein. It will give the Wildcats a good starting point for the season.
"We are still building," Pearlman said. "I am hoping that this team can take us through that barrier. The jury is still out, though, because we still see moments in practice where we revert back to some old bad habits. Then we see some positive signs."