The reloading process is underway. It's nearing its 11th month, actually.
When star quarterback T.J. Edwards went down last season with an injury, while his football team was in the midst of another undefeated run through its division, Lakes got a sneak peek at 2014.
"The good and the bad with losing T.J. was we lost him in Week 5," coach Luke Mertens said. "We had a long time to accept a great player not being a part of our team. It made the transition a little easier."
Edwards missed the Eagles' last four regular-season games and their playoff opener. Lakes lost its season opener to Grayslake North and dropped its first-round playoff battle against Prairie Ridge. In between, the Eagles won eight games in a row, capturing the North Suburban Prairie championship with a 6-0 mark for the second year in a row.
"I don't think people realized how young we were last year," Mertens said.
While Edwards battles for a backup linebacker spot at the University of Wisconsin, his high school alma mater welcomes back 16 starters, including four all-conference players. The Eagles expect to win again, and once again will feature a Division-I recruit.
Two-way all-NSC lineman Ryan Mullen, who's as gifted academically as he is athletically, verbally committed to Miami (Ohio) last spring, then a couple of weeks later advanced downstate in track in the shot put and discus.
"He had a lot of options on the table, without naming schools," Mertens said. "He just really felt Miami was the place for him."
When a knee injury prematurely ended Edwards' season, the Eagles turned to three-sport athlete Ethan Sage, who was starting at strong safety. Sage wound up getting banged up playing QB too.
As the Eagles prepare for the 2014 campaign, Sage is in the starting-QB mix along with three other quality athletes.
Senior Jake Balliu is one of the best athletes in the county, a track star who also started for the basketball team. Juniors Jordan Mercure (basketball) and Colton Jewell (volleyball) both played another varsity sport as a sophomore. Mercure started at QB for the sophomore team last year and got some varsity snaps late in the season.
"I don't think I'll ever be able to say this again in my career: I can play all four (QBs)," Mertens said.
What's certain is that Mertens will get all four athletes on the field.
"I'm in a unique position," Mertens said. "It's not going to be which guy wins the quarterback position. We're going to look at other positions on the field (for that player). If one (player) is a better fit at another position, especially defensively, that's how it's going to happen. I have the utmost faith in all four of those guys."
Balliu is also a good wide receiver. He started at the position last season and earned all-conference honors. The Eagles will want to get the ball in the hands of the 5-foot-8, 175-pound speed demon.
"I tell every college coach, 'You are a fool if you don't recruit this guy,' " Mertens said of Balliu. "I think every coach on my staff (agrees) that if the game is on the line, there's no one at Lakes I want the ball in their hands more than that kid. He's a winner. Whatever coach is smart enough to recruit him is going to get an outstanding football player."
Dynamic junior running back Devyn Cedzidlo is another returning all-conference talent and earned an individual state berth in track in the long jump last spring. Besides the 6-3, 260-pound Mullen, the Eagles' experienced offensive line includes seniors Steve McVicker (6-1, 220), Chris Diaguila (5-10, 210) and Austin Summers (6-3, 255).
The defensive line will have a veteran look, too, with seniors Mullen, Andrew Potter (6-0, 190), Josh McQuade (5-11, 185) and Austin Goodson (6-2, 262). Besides Sage, junior Charles Hudson (6-2, 180) also played in the secondary last year. Senior Dan Recker (6-1, 210) is back at linebacker after an all-conference 2013 campaign. Junior linebacker Jeremy Sasser (6-0, 200) is another player to watch.
Lakes has been to the state playoffs six times in its nine years as a program, all under Mertens. The Eagles seek their sixth playoff berth in a row this fall.
"Something we talk to our kids about is having confidence in themselves," Mertens said. "Year to year, you see the kids gain confidence. I think every coach at every level would agree that confidence is such an important part of the game."