Illinois High School football coaches enjoy the opportunity to work with their teams over the summer, but the opening of August practice tends to sharpen every squad's focus.
That was the case Monday for teams statewide, including 24 throughout the Fox Valley from Aurora to Cary.
"I think everybody's approach changes just a little bit this time of year because of the reality of the game being so close now," said Cary-Grove coach Brad Seaburg, whose Trojans open the season against district rival Prairie Ridge on Aug. 26. "In the summer you're training hard but the game's not for two months. Now, the game is in two weeks. Everything has a little more urgency."
As they toil in the August heat to prepare for their respective season openers, here are some storylines to follow involving Fox Valley area teams.
Three programs have new head coaches.
Bartlett has a new leader for the first time in 14 years as longtime assistant Eric Ilich takes over for Tom Meaney. Ilich's stated goal? To get everyone involved in the program to "row the boat in the same direction."
Huntley, which reached the playoffs three of the last four seasons, is now led by Matt Zimolzak. He served as former head coach John Hart's defensive coordinator the last four years. Zimolzak was an assistant at Fremd for 17 seasons prior to that.
Hart (28-12) left Huntley to become head coach at Brownsburg (Ind.) High School.
Brian Melvin takes over as Burlington Central's third coach in as many seasons. A 1994 Larkin graduate, he replaces Jason Newburger, who went 1-8 in his only year at Central. Newburger stepped down last spring to become the offensive coordinator at Highland Park.
Melvin spent the last four seasons coaching at East Aurora on the staff of former Chicago Bears offensive lineman Kurt Becker. He also coached at Elgin, St. Francis, Bartlett and St. Charles East.
Batavia's basketball team is used to playing downstate due to a long-running series against Quincy. The school's football team follows suit with a Week 1 tilt at Belleville West, a mere 278-mile bus ride each way.
That's minor compared to St. Edward's season-opening journey. According to coach Mike Rolando, approximately 100 Green Wave players, cheerleaders, coaches and fans will fly on Aug. 24 to Orlando, where St. Edward faces Christ's Church Academy of Jacksonville, Fla. on Aug. 26 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, located at the center of Walt Disney World Resort.
"I think it's going to be a fantastic experience for our kids and they're excited about it," Rolando said. "Everyone gets excited about high school football this time of year anyway, but we thought it would be a neat thing for our kids, an awesome experience."
Players to watch
Cary-Grove fullback Tyler Pennington enters his fourth varsity season on the cusp of some rare accomplishments.
A two-way player who also excels at linebacker, Pennington is the all-time leading rusher for a program known for producing hard-to-tackle fullbacks. He enters his senior season with 4,383 career yards and a school-record 66 rushing touchdowns on 751 carries (5.84 avg.).
If Pennington matches last season's total of 1,257 yards and 23 touchdowns on 241 carries over 13 games, he would go down as the eighth-leading rusher in IHSA history with 5,823 yards. His projected 89 rushing touchdowns would rank fourth all-time.
Pennington isn't the only top-notch player returning to the FVC this season.
Huntley defensive end Olalere Oladipo impressed recruiters last season with his backside pursuit and an impressive combination of speed and strength. Of Oladipo's 39 tackles last season, 10 were for a loss, including 4 sacks.
The 6-foot-4, 235-pound undecided senior hopes to lead the Red Raiders to consecutive conference titles. He enters camp with 20 Division-I offers, including Michigan State, Penn State, Illinois and Indiana.
On the other side of the ball, Huntley returns dynamic junior speedster Eric Mooney. An all-area pick last year when he rushed for 847 yards and 16 touchdowns and made 26 catches for 597 yards and 3 TDs, the 6-1, 188-pound athlete's role on offense is expected to expand greatly.
Elsewhere, Jacobs returns third-year quarterback Chris Katrenick, committed to Bowling Green. He helped the Golden Eagles reach the playoffs last fall for the fifth time in hall-of-fame coach Bill Mitz's six seasons in Algonquin.
Upstate Eight races
Batavia graduated some key players like quarterback Kyle Niemiec and wide receiver Canaan Coffey, among others, but the five-time Upstate Eight River Division champion Bulldogs won't be knocked from the top spot easily, thanks to returnees like 6-foot-6, 260 pound offensive lineman Evan Day (Illinois State).
Geneva, St. Charles East and St. Charles North hope to challenge the Bulldogs for UEC River supremacy. The North Stars may be in the best position to usurp Batavia, thanks to returning senior linemen like Northern Illinois recruit Isaac Hawn (6-6, 285) and 6-5, 295-pound Sam Ambrogio, who holds an offer from Eastern Michigan. Hawn is a three-star recruit, according to rivals.com.
South Elgin will attempt to repeat as champion of the UEC Valley. To do so, the Storm must fend off challenges from the likes of rival Bartlett and West Aurora, both playoff teams a year ago.
The Blackhawks return all-UEC Valley and all-area running back DaQuan Cross, a two-way player West Aurora coach Nate Eimer calls one the best athletes he's seen at the school in 10 years.
"We seemed like a group with experience and we are, so it was a good first day," Eimer said after Monday's workouts.
Fans may have to look in a different spot this season to find their team in the standings. For instance, Burlington Central is no longer a member of the Big Northern Conference, a league it co-founded in 1991.
The Rockets become founding members of the seven-team Kishwaukee River Conference this season along with former BNC mates Harvard, Johnsburg, Marengo and Richmond-Burton. They are joined by former Fox Valley Conference schools Woodstock and Woodstock North.
The Woodstocks aren't the only schools departing the Fox Valley Conference. Grayslake Central and Grayslake North leave the FVC to join the new Northern Lake County Conference, which also includes most of the schools from the former Prairie Division of the North Suburban Conference: Antioch, Grant, Lakes, North Chicago, Round Lake and Wauconda.
In turn, the remaining North Suburban Lake Division schools -- Warren, Lake Forest, Lake Zurich, Libertyville, Stevenson, Mundelein and Zion-Benton -- join Vernon Hills and Waukegan to form a new conference called the North Suburban Eight.
Of course, all the changes had an effect on the ...
Fox Valley Conference
The FVC was a 14-team, two-division league as recently as the 2014-15 school year but due to recent defections reverts to a nine-team conference in 2016-17. The two-division format has been eliminated.
The contracted FVC lineup features Cary-Grove, Crystal Lake Central, Crystal Lake South, Dundee-Crown, Hampshire, Huntley, Jacobs, McHenry and Prairie Ridge.
The FVC schools all play each other in football, thus filling eight of the nine dates on their regular-season schedules. Seven FVC schools will complete their schedule with a nonconference game as part of the ...
Fox Valley vs. Upstate Eight series
Beginning this fall, schools from the Fox Valley and Upstate Eight Conferences will square off in nonconference play.
On the FVC side, Hampshire will instead continue its nonconference series against rival Burlington Central in Week 2 while Crystal Lake Central faces Grant in the season opener.
On the UEC side, Elgin is the only team from the River Division assigned to face a FVC school in a nonconference matchup. The other six games involve UEC Valley teams.
The full list: Sept. 9: McHenry at Elgin; Sept 16: East Aurora at Dundee-Crown; Sept. 23: Prairie Ridge at Bartlett; Sept. 30: West Aurora at Huntley; Oct 7: Glenbard East at Jacobs; Oct. 15: South Elgin at Cary-Grove; Oct. 21: Crystal Lake South at West Chicago.