Considering South Elgin coach Pat Pistorio and his staff had little time to prepare the team after being hired in July of 2013, it's remarkable how close the Storm came to making the playoffs last season.
The final record was 3-6, including one-sided losses to playoff qualifiers Benet and Waubonsie Valley, but South Elgin was competitive in most games until the end. Of its 6 losses, 4 came by a total of 19 points.
In fact, Upstate Eight Valley champion Neuqua Valley won 10 games and reached a Class 8A state quarterfinal last fall, but the Storm nearly prevailed in a Sept. 13 shootout in which the lead flip-flopped throughout the second half.
It's also worth noting that the team's top two running backs -- state qualifying sprinter Shawn Griffin, now a junior, and fast, powerful senior Kyle Ware -- were banged up from midseason forward. With its top rushing threats diminished or sidelined altogether, the Storm became a one-dimensional passing team. Even the area's leading passer, the now-graduated Rob Cuda, couldn't make headway against good defensive teams like Waubonsie, which dropped seven or eight pass defenders into coverage and dared the Storm to run.
South Elgin will take that dare this season. Griffin and Ware return healthy and hungry, running behind a revamped, more athletic offensive line.
"Shawn had close to 700 yards rushing and Ware has been a monster for us between the tackles in terms of his ability to get yards after contacts," Pistorio said. "Our offense will be focused around those two with what we have planned. As long as we can keep those two healthy, I think they could be two of the top running backs in the area. I believe that strongly."
The new-look offensive line paced a renewed off-season commitment to the weight room, which became contagious teamwide. Last preseason South Elgin's five offensive linemen could bench 185 pounds only 35 times combined. This year the top five linemen hoisted 80-85 reps at that weight, according to their coach.
No 300-pounders populate the offensive line, which includes Matt Zimmerman, Mike Ribando, Sean Walsh and Jarin Davis along with center candidates Al Malfitano, Ian Happel and Paul Neumann. However, all are rangy athletes between 6-2 and 6-6 and all run well.
Replacing Cuda, who threw for an area-best 2,231 passing yards and 23 touchdowns, falls to two players: senior Hayden Nelson (6-0, 180 pounds) and junior multisport athlete Jake Amrhein (6-3, 200). Pistorio said both are extremely mobile quarterbacks who create mismatches for defensive coordinators. He intends to play both.
The offense remains deep at wide receiver despite the loss of graduated all-area performer Tyler Christensen. Senior Nick Menken was the area's fifth-leading receiver last year with 675 yards on 36 catches. He scored 11 touchdowns, tied for the most by any area receiver. Also back is senior Andrew Kamienski, who navigated traffic to haul in 26 balls for 368 yards and 3 scores. Junior receiver Derek Kumerow (6-2) comes from a football family. His father, Eric, played three seasons for the Miami Dolphins and one for the Chicago Bears. His brother, Jake, a 2010 South Elgin graduate, stars for Division III national champion Wisconsin-Whitewater. Another highly visible receiver will be tight end Brian Medina (6-5, 225), but the junior's first duty is along the defensive line.
Medina is joined on the defensive front by Greco-Roman wrestler Zach Crosby (6-2, 200), Nick Wolotowsky (6-3, 240), Kenny Bradley (6-2, 250) and Matthew Cravin, the latter a 6-foot-1, 300-pound run stopper. Junior Justin Nutof will play linebacker, while Colin Wood leads the secondary.
South Elgin's defense was left vulnerable last season by its own offense after Griffin and Ware were hurt. The Storm offense tended to either strike quickly through the air or fail to maintain possession in the no-huddle offense, leaving the defense on the field too long. South Elgin surrendered 30.7 points and 312 totals yards per game in 2013.
"I think we'll be all right," Pistorio said of the defense, "but that's why the run game is so significant: the best defense is the one on the sidelines. When you're a no-huddle team, those three-and-outs are devastating to what you're trying to do.
"We lack the experience, but the overall effort is there and I know coach (defensive coordinator Steve) Szpejnowski is going to do a good job preparing them each week and keep it simple for them. He'll enforce personal accountability. Compared to the offense, we've got some depth over there."