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Rolling Meadows and Elk Grove have dominated the Mid-Suburban East over about the last 10 years. And the East ended in a three-way tie last year between Rolling Meadows, Elk Grove and Hersey.
But a new contender could emerge this season from one of the most unlikely places.
Wheeling, which has had just two winning seasons in the last 17 years, could be poised to clear the first hurdle in the resurgence of the program under coach Brent Pearlman.
"We need our kids to start thinking that they belong," Pearlman said. "We have been trying to change that culture here and I think we have taken some huge steps forward."
Making the Wildcats dangerous this season is the return of Isaac Branch, the area's second-leading rusher last season and Amani Dennis, a two-year starter at quarterback. Tyler Urban, who was the team's leading receiver, also returns to give the Wildcats plenty of options on offense.
Experience is also a key at Hersey, where 10 starters return for a team that won its first conference title in 37 years. And the Huskies are eager to make sure that there is not a 37-year break before the next one.
"We have some veteran guys in some key spots that are back," said Hersey coach Joe Pardun, who is in his first year as head coach. "We need the rest of our guys to step up and fill those other spots."
Joe Caputo, who started at outside linebacker, has moved to quarterback this season. The Huskies will also return one of their top wide receivers in Cole Monckton along with three offensive linemen. And Hersey has six starters back on defense.
Both Rolling Meadows and Elk Grove also figure to have a say in the conference title hunt, since they have been in that battle the last few years.
The teams will be similar in make-up as each team lost significant players from last season, including Elk Grove quarterback Adam O'Malley and Rolling Meadows quarterback Bobby Suchecki.
"Adam did everything for us," Elk Grove coach Larry Calhoun said. "We are just going to have to go in a new direction."
Elk Grove hasn't settled yet on a quarterback with junior A.J. Lorenz or senior Sean Fege stll battling. Meanwhile RJ Matucci looks to lead the Mustangs into their season, following a string of successful quarterbacks that include Jack Milas and New England Patriots second-round draft pick Jimmy Garoppolo.
"We know that Mattucci will grow into the job," Rolling Meadows coach Matt Mishler said. "We have some spots to fill, but we are confident that we will be able to do that."
Elk Grove does have Matt Wary back at wide receiver and an offensive line that averages 267 pounds.
Rolling Meadows lost 16 starters but returns two offensive linemen, including Gregg Off.
Buffalo Grove will need to stay healthy to be in contention this year according to coach Mike DiMatteo.
"We don't have as much depth as I would like,"DiMatteo said. "Last year injuries really hurt us."
The Bison look strong at quarterback with 6-foot-3 Trey Cervantes, who got plenty of work last year as a sophomore, while strong safety John Maddux is the leader on defense.
Despite its generally youthful profile, Prospect has some experience back this year.
Quarterback Matt Drew, who stated last year as sophomore before being injured, leads a rough and tumble Knights squad. Mike O'Malley, Mike Ott and Vincent Lai lead a senior-dominated wide receiver corps for Drew to connect with.
"We need leadership from our seniors this year and the guys that played last year," Prospect coach Mike Sebestyen said. "I know our kids are ready to battle."
Last year's standings
MSL East Conf. All
Rolling Meadows 4-1 6-4
Hersey 4-1 6-4
Elk Grove 4-1 6-4
Buffalo Grove 1-4 2-7
Wheeling 1-4 2-7
Prospect 1-4 1-8
Predicted finish this season: Hersey, Wheeling, Rolling Meadows, Elk Grove, Buffalo Grove, Prospect