When asked his opinion on the best football players in the East Suburban Catholic Conference, Benet coach Pat New answered honestly.
"Nazareth's starting lineup."
Maybe it's not that simple, but the point is sound. Nazareth returns double-digit starters from a team that closed the season with six straight wins before losing in the second round of the Class 5A playoffs.
Four returning offensive linemen, two experienced quarterbacks and sophomore running back Ivory Kelly-Martin power the offense while linebacker Decxavier Kelly -- who helped hand Benet its first loss in Week 7 last season -- leads the defense.
In a pack of heavyweights among six playoff qualifiers from a year ago, Nazareth appears to have everything it takes to win one of the state's most prestigious conference titles.
"They're so strong," New said. "I just remember watching them last year and thinking everyone's back."
Benet, the ESCC champion two years ago, is working to reclaim the top spot despite the off-season transfer of Iowa-bound senior quarterback Jack Beneventi to Fenwick. The Sznajder brothers -- senior running back Brad, who last season rushed for 814 yards, and sophomore quarterback Jack -- reload an offense that also returns three linemen.
The Redwings had one of the ESCC's best defenses the last two years, but much of that talent graduated. Veteran players like lineman Jack Kelly must step up to keep pace with the league's highflying offenses.
One of those offenses rests with ESCC newcomer Marian Central Catholic, which arrives from the dismantled Suburban Christian Conference. Quarterback Billy Bahl, committed to Miami of Ohio, makes the Hurricanes an instant threat to win the title.
Marist, a Class 8A semifinalist, and Joliet Catholic, a 5A quarterfinalist, are perennial state-caliber programs. Despite tremendous losses, both remain strong.
Running back Mike Ivlow, who last season rushed for 2,500 yards, graduated from Joliet Catholic but returner Nick Borgra nearly rushed for 1,000 yards. Marist also looks strong in the backfield with explosive running back Jawill Aldridge.
Perhaps the most interesting matchup of the season will be Benet's Week 3 conference opener against Notre Dame. Because the programs didn't play each other the last two seasons, they both feature back-to-back classes that went 9-0 at the sophomore level.
Beyond last year's playoff qualifiers, smart teams won't fall asleep on Carmel, St. Viator, St. Patrick and Marian Catholic.
"There's no break on the schedule in this conference, and we know that," New said. "We're preparing for a season with no weeks off."
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