Starting his second year coaching football in the Interstate Eight Conference's Small Division, Westmont's Otto Zeman has quickly learned the league hierarchy.
"Every year you've got to beat Wilmington," he said.
Coach Jeff Reents' Wildcats have gone unbeaten six straight seasons in divisional play, 32 straight Small wins overall. Wilmington hasn't lost there since 2007 when it fell to current IEC Large teams Plano and Coal City. The former won the 2007 Class 3A title, the latter lost in the 4A semifinals to champion Driscoll.
Yet every year Reents opens the season speaking humbly.
"I think it's going to be one of the toughest years in the conference," he said.
Talent should be more uniform than in 2013. Dwight, which finished 0-9 overall and got outscored 197-34 by Small Division foes, left the Interstate Eight for the Sangamon Valley Conference. Westmont went 1-8 overall and beat Dwight 42-13.
To maintain a Small and Large alignment of six teams each, the league accepted Streator's bid, put it in the Large, and shifted Herscher, with a football enrollment of 606, to the Small side.
"It just puts a bigger school in the smaller half," said third-year Seneca coach Ted O'Boyle, whose spread offense has gotten the Fighting Irish back on track after several seasons of numbers-based doldrums.
O'Boyle is correct. After opening its 2013 schedule by pelting Westmont with 51 points Herscher lost its three other crossover games against Lisle, Seneca and Wilmington.
"I see Wilmington as a pretty solid favorite," O'Boyle said. "Obviously, it's been that way for a long time and there's no reason with how young they were last year not to think the same thing. I'd like to think we'll fit in as close to them as we can get."
Seneca graduated arguably the division's top player, quarterback Bo Taylor, but returns three offensive starters and four defensive starters, including two-way lineman Colin Griffin. Irish quarterback Zach Russell is one to watch.
Reents said his Wing-T-based club returns a lot of skill players but is "a little green up front." Five returners, including 1,000-yard back Nick McWilliams and quarterback Mason Southall, earned all-conference selection as juniors.
Reed-Custer, which made strides last season by beating Westmont and Dwight, returns a pair of all-conference picks in receiver Mason Dransfeldt and lineman Steven Podkulski. The Comets must bust through against Lisle, Herscher and what looks to be an improved Westmont team that has size not only on the line but with skill players such as 6-foot-4 quarterback Kyle Domin and 240-pound receiver Marcus Mott-Larson.
Lisle graduated its big three of Griffin Huba, Kevin Coppin and Cliff Krause but returns a solid offensive line headed by three-year starter Jared Arellano. As with most of the Interstate Eight Small teams, depth and injuries will play a role.
So too new Lisle coach Paul Parpet, an Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame member.
"My feeling is that we just need to get ourselves prepared and not worry so much about what other people are going to do," he said.
Based on history here's what Wilmington will do: win. Reents isn't counting his chickens yet.
"The Interstate Eight Small is going to be very good and very balanced," he said.