It's the dawn of a new era for St. Edward football and the outlook has never been brighter.
The Green Wave fought the good fight for decades against larger private schools like Montini, Marian Central, St. Francis, Marmion and now-shuttered Driscoll in the Suburban Catholic Conference and its expanded successor, the Suburban Christian. The odds were usually against the Elgin Catholic school, which has an enrollment of 406 students, according to its website.
St. Edward, seeking a more level playing field for its athletes in general and its football program in particular, was among seven of the smaller SCC schools to leave for the Metro Suburban Conference, which is now a 12-team, two-division league comprised of seven private schools, five public.
The Green Wave finds itself in the MSC East with division games scheduled against Guerin, Walther Christian, Ridgewood, Chicago Christian and Elmwood Park -- respectable opponents, all, but not comparable to the state champion-caliber teams the Wave faced regularly in the SCC with rare success.
"We'd jump up and beat somebody now and then but the stars had to line up," tenth-year St. Edward coach Mike Rolando said of playing in the SCC. "Your kids had to be on, they had to not be intimidated and you had to catch the other guy on an off day maybe.
"Now we look at our schedule and there are 9 games we can compete in. The kids have a great attitude. They're confident and prepared. If the players do what they need to do and we do our job as coaches, there's no reason we can't put together a team that competes in all 9 games."
The veteran coach's optimism has reached the high-water mark, and the reasons go well beyond the new schedule. Ironically, Rolando has a team this season that might have fared as well in the SCC as any under his watch. The roster of 33, the program's largest in 10 seasons, is loaded with talented veterans. St. Edward welcomes back eight full or part-time defensive starters from a team that went 5-5 in its final SCC season and secured the program's third playoff berth in five years.
The defense drips with experience at each level. Senior inside linebacker Jack Tierney returns for his third season as a starter. Tierney last year had 1 interception and made 63 tackles, third on the team and the most of any returnee. Playing alongside him is senior linebacker Chris Kelly, a returning starter who recorded 42 tackles.
Danny Favela is a three-year starter at free safety. Also a basketball player, the 6-foot-3 senior snared 2 of the defense's 9 interceptions and made 44 tackles last year. He is joined again in the secondary by junior returning starter Jake French at cornerback. Seniors Devin Warner (5-11, 165) and Bryan O'Neill (6-0, 173) both saw significant playing time at safety.
"We have some solid defensive players, really good coverage guys," Rolando said. "A lot of teams like to throw now and I feel we've got six or seven defensive backs who are really good. We have several who can go man coverage, which allows us to do other things."
The defensive line is just as experienced. Senior tackle Kasey Cooke (6-0, 285) returns along with ends Brandon Ostrander (6-4, 240) and Josh Von Rohr (6-1, 185). Von Rohr is coming back from a season-ending injury suffered in Week 5. Dan Howell will get the starting nod at tackle after notching 4 sacks off the bench as a junior. Combined, that foursome was responsible for 90 tackles and 12 sacks in 2013.
Senior Joe Mullen emerged from a quarterback competition last fall and started throughout the second half of the season. He completed 58 of 120 pass attempts for 957 yards and 10 touchdowns and threw 7 interceptions. Rolando said Mullen added 17 pounds of muscle in the off-season and returns a more polished, more confident player ready to lead the offense.
Mullen enjoys the luxury of tall, seasoned receivers. Slot man Favela (6-3) made 8 receptions for 226 yards and 2 touchdowns last year, senior Nick Duffy (6-4) had 14 catches for 187 yards and 2 scores and Petey DeWindt had 9 grabs for 82 yards. Mullen gains another tall target with the 6-4 Ostrander at tight end.
Junior tailback Dwayne Allen didn't get many carries last season while biding his time behind record breaking running back DaVontae Elam, who graduated with single-season and career program records in attempts, rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. Quietly, Allen posted the third-highest average yards per carry in modern St. Edward history with 9.3 per attempt. He gained 475 yards and scored 5 touchdowns on 51 carries and made 6 catches for 101 yards and another score.
The line features multiple two-way players: Kelly, Cooke, Tierney and Von Rohr. Juniors Haydn Hilton, Michael Montes and Ruben Monteil are vying for the open starting job, but all will see playing time in an effort to keep the team's two-way linemen as fresh as possible deep into games.
"I'm optimistic, mostly because of the depth of talent, the wide range of talent," Rolando said. "I like the well-balanced team we have."