A year ago, West Aurora earned its first football state playoff berth in 21 seasons, capturing the final Class 8A postseason bid before giving eventual state champion Loyola a first-half scare in the opening round.
"It was special," said Blackhawks coach Nate Eimer. "It was great for the kids and a lot of coaches who hadn't been there (playoffs) before. Everybody had a lot of fun."
The fun may just be beginning for the Blackhawks, who open the 2016 campaign at home against Yorkville on Aug. 26.
"For me personally, I didn't take the job here as head coach six years ago only to make it (to the playoffs) once," said Eimer, who was a member of the Blackhawks' Class AA basketball state championship team in 2000.
"It made us hungrier to do it again."
There are plenty of added incentives this season for the Blackhawks, who finished 5-5 overall and 3-2 in Upstate Eight Conference Valley Division play, good enough for third place behind fellow playoff qualifiers South Elgin and Bartlett.
"We do talk about making the playoffs," said Eimer. "This senior group has been pretty special since coming in as freshmen. We talk about back-to-back playoff berths -- something that hasn't been done here since 1983-1984.
"We talk about winning a conference title -- something we haven't done since 1983. We're trying to bring back a tradition that hasn't been there for more than 20 years."
While the Blackhawks lost tailback-linebacker Drake Spears (now at Illinois) and 3-year starting quarterback Jonathon Doyle to graduation, they have plenty of familiar faces around, including senior twins DaQuan Cross and DaVion Cross.
At 5-10, 185 pounds, DaQuan Cross brings superb athleticism, experience and versatility to the mix as well as a long list of superlatives from the coaching staff.
"He can play everywhere," said Eimer. "He can do it all. He can play linebacker, safety, running back, wide receiver and return kicks. I'm shocked that he hasn't gotten more attention from college recruiters."
DaQuan Cross, who has led the Blackhawks in rushing each of the last 2 seasons, was the leading tackler as a sophomore and the team's second-leading tackler last year.
DaVion Cross also figures to be a 2-way starter at cornerback and running back as well as a top-notch punt returner.
"We'll use him all over the place," said Eimer. "He's shiftier than his brother. He can make you miss."
Defensively, the Blackhawks return 10 of 11 starters, including all 5 linebackers -- DaQuan Cross, Taylor Zimmerman, Jaeshawn Robinson, Fabian Guerrero, and Chandler Behrens.
Linemen Cam Walker, Fabian Barth, Spencer Locke, and defensive backs Nick Catalano and DaVion Cross are also back supported by seniors Cionte Carter, Dmitri Davis and sophomore JaQuan Buchanan.
"Our defense can be elite," said Eimer. "We think teams are going to have a hard time putting together long drives against us."
Senior Jake Jankovsky figures to direct the offense at quarterback.
"Jake has been going a great job with the wing-T," said Eimer. "He's a better runner than people think."
Offensive linemen Oscar Gonzalez, Eddie Fowler, Ian Mooney, Josh Mayhew and Kyle Mars will provide protection for Jankovsky.
"We have a lot of team depth," said Eimer. "That has been very rare for us."