The Upstate Eight Conference contains some of the top football programs in the state. Enjoy it while it lasts.
This is a conference in flux. Glenbard East and West Aurora left the DuPage Valley Conference for the UEC Valley Division. That pushed West Chicago -- last year's newcomer via the DVC -- to the River Division.
Starting with the 2015-16 academic year Neuqua Valley, Waubonsie Valley and Metea Valley are slated to join the DuPage Valley, which creates UEC imbalance and undoubtedly more movement.
Ask these football coaches about those developments and they don't much care. They want to win now.
"We've got to worry about playing in the Upstate Eight Conference," said Waubonsie Valley coach Paul Murphy.
Rightly so. Each division enters the fall somewhat top-heavy, moreso in the River than the Valley, but the consensus is all teams are either improved or are led by coaches determined to turn the corner.
For example East Aurora, which last season ended a 44-game losing streak with a 25-22 win over Elgin, saw a Tomcats-record 160 players attend coach Kurt Becker's first day of practice.
"I think across the board the entire league is going to be much improved over last year," said Batavia coach Dennis Piron, coming off a 13-1 record and the Class 6A state title.
Batavia graduated outstanding football players from that team but returns enough to earn the preseason tab in the River and is highly regarded in the area.
Bulldogs senior Jack Breshears heads an offensive line that returns three all-conference selections. Senior defensive ends Josh Leonhard and Noah Frazier each surpassed the existing program sack records last season. These guys are on a roll.
"I just know nothing good happens unless we go through Batavia. That's what the season entails. They're by far the favorite," said Geneva coach Rob Wicinski.
Ah, but with Northern Illinois-bound quarterback Daniel Santacaterina in his third year as a starter and an emphasis on ratcheting up a defense that's allowed 30 points a game the last two years, the gap may narrow. Players such as Stephen Kemp, Wyatt Shodeen and Pace Temple lend star quality to each level of the Vikings' defense.
"I think obviously those two teams are the teams to beat. From that point on there's an opportunity for the other teams to compete," said St. Charles North coach Rob Pomazak, in his second year.
If recent tradition holds it'll be St. Charles East and St. Charles North each vying for the top half of the eight-team division.
The North Stars will be hitters, led by returning starters Carson Schmitt and Jordan Bergren. St. Charles East awarded sophomore coach Bryce Farquhar (pronounced "forker") with the varsity spot. Returning back Ramon Lopez will try to find daylight behind Division I prospect Brennan Bosch.
Incidentally, the man who brought Farquhar into the St. Charles East program is back in action. Ted Monken, formerly of St. Charles East and Metea Valley, is trying to round West Chicago into form. He's among several first- or second-year coaches at schools like Streamwood (Mark Orszula), Elgin (Kyle Rhode) and Larkin (Dragan Teonic) attempting turnarounds.
Teonic has reclamation experience. At Hersey he took a club that had won two games in the three seasons before he arrived to tri-champion last year in the Mid-Suburban East.
"We expect a very difficult division," Farquhar said. "The Elgin schools are only getting better."
That's a division-wide scenario in the UEC Valley. Neuqua Valley and Waubonsie Valley are back at the top, but the weekly battles up and down the league figure to be brutal.
Neuqua Valley coach Bill Ellinghaus will miss Illinois freshman receiver Mikey Dudek, but he has 13 returning starters to ease the pain. Indiana State-bound quarterback Broc Rutter is protected by a large and veteran offensive line, and Neuqua has a variety of skill players to run and catch the ball.
Better yet, Neuqua returns five of last season's top 10 tacklers, including linebackers Derrek Warkenthien and Eli Tappin. Cornerbacks Famus Hasty and Nathan Bailey each are getting college looks. Ellinghaus takes nothing for granted despite winning the last two Valley titles undefeated at 6-0.
"I think our division is going to be improved again this year," he said. "I think there's been a constant incline, and I believe that Waubonsie will be very good."
The Warriors, 5-1 each of the last three seasons and also the last year of the unified Upstate Eight in 2009, combine 6-4 size and decent speed at the quarterback position in Zach Bennema. If running back Tony Durns gets in space, well, this is an athlete who as a junior could have reached the state finals in the 100- and 200-meter dashes had he not pulled a hamstring. The Warriors are anchored on the offensive line by Tyler Caldwell, on the defensive line by Kurtis Chione.
"Obviously," Warriors coach Paul Murphy said, "I believe we can compete for a conference championship as well."
Murphy complimented Metea Valley, which took a major step last season by beating both Bartlett and South Elgin for the first time in their four-year history. This season promises to be better if, like Geneva in the River Division, they can stop somebody. Returning seniors including Matt Fitzgerald, Ben Belskis and all-Valley defensive lineman Erin Morgan aim to make that happen.
"I think our goal has always been in that top-three mix," Mustangs coach Ben Kleinhans said. "We feel we should be in that top three and take our chances with anything else above that."
Last season Bartlett missed the playoffs for just the second time in 14 years, but the Hawks started 14 sophomores, including all-conference players Nolan Bernat and Kyle Sanft. In coach Pat Pistorio's first season South Elgin lost four games by a total of 19 points. He returns several key skill players, including receiver Nick Menken, who had 675 yards receiving with 11 touchdowns.
After Glenbard East usually found itself looking up in the DuPage Valley -- and West Aurora always did -- it will be interesting how they fare.
Glenbard East, which went 7-2 on the sophomore level last season, will employ waterbug backs and returning quarterback Drake Pusateri behind two of the top linemen around, 6-foot-7 Chris Ryan and 300-pound Ben Sullivan. West Aurora brings back four starting offensive linemen, an outstanding athlete in DaQuan Cross and another two-way star, junior Drake Spears, who has already received an Illinois scholarship offer.
Neither Glenbard East coach John Walters, who called the move "no factor," nor West Aurora coach Nate Eimer are making a big deal out of their new digs.
"It's new for us, but you can't debate our record in the DVC," Eimer said. "It's just new, but the kids haven't really talked about it. We've just moved on, done what we're supposed to do as a program."