West Aurora coach Nate Eimer's first statement about his team included the word "excited." Three times.
The Blackhawks graduate is three-times excited because he sees his team's experience, speed and physicality.
Take Drake Spears. He's got all three.
The 6-foot-2, 202-pound junior, about to enter his third season as a starter, landed an Illinois scholarship offer this summer.
As a sophomore receiver and safety Spears led West Aurora in solo tackles, was second in tackles for loss, returned an interception 34 yards for a touchdown and was third in both rushing yardage and pass receptions. Ohio State, Northern Illinois and Northwestern also are monitoring him after he attended camps there.
Or take senior center Stephen Castellanos. Eimer joked that as a freshman he had trouble jumping rope. Now the returning starter has great feet, was named most valuable lineman at a well-attended Division III camp this summer, and pressed 185 pounds 32 times to lead all comers at West Aurora's annual Big Butts Lineman's Challenge.
Now out of the DuPage Valley Conference and playing in the Upstate Eight for the first time since 1996, after opening the 2013 season with one returning offensive starter -- graduated quarterback Quintez Jones -- West Aurora returns eight starters on both sides of the ball.
They include four of five offensive linemen -- Castellanos, Sam Deisher, Karl Fowler and Hayden Sak, a Division I long-snapping prospect. Prospective starter Hunter Siler and others such as Jake Elkins and Alex DeBolt provide some depth.
Eimer believes running back DaQuan Cross will cross people's radar this season, an excellent athlete with speed. The Blackhawks also gained senior back T.J. Jackson via transfer from St. Francis. Junior Joey Griffin looks to make a mark in the backfield and at linebacker.
In Jon Doyle the team doesn't have a quarterback who's going to throw it all over the field, but Eimer anticipates an offense that takes what a defense gives.
"He just keeps improving every day," Eimer said. "That's the best thing I like about Jon."
Defensively West returns its entire starting secondary of Spears, Luke Cavender and Sean Anthony, linemen Zack Vacca and Rashaud Jeffries and starting linebackers Cross, Dylan Matrisciano and Cody Tinsley from its 3-5 set. Chandler Behrens, tabbed as a probable starting linebacker, and linebacker Fabian Guerrero are a pair of sophomores who played on a 6-3 freshman team.
It's important to note West Aurora went 1-8 last season, hasn't made the playoffs since 1994 and hasn't won five games since 2004. The Blackhawks need major improvements on both sides of the ball, a winning mentality and mental toughness to counter adversity. Regardless of skill and experience they cannot afford injury and despite leaving the vaunted DVC there are no gimmes on West's schedule that includes Geneva, Neuqua Valley and Waubonsie Valley with Glenbard East, Bartlett, South Elgin and even East Aurora all improved.
Eimer is excited. He's also a realist.
"We want to play in close, competitive football games for nine games in a row," he said. "I think we have a lot of capability of doing that, but we still have a lot of work to do."