Only one question matters when it comes to the title race in the Upstate Eight River: can anybody beat Batavia?
To call the Bulldogs league kingpins of the last five years is to understate their level of dominance. The five-time UEC River champs enter the 2016 season riding a 32-game division winning streak that began on Oct. 23, 2010 with a 50-0 win over Streamwood.
And it isn't just the UEC River Batavia has beaten up over that span. Over the last five seasons, the Bulldogs are 10-3 in regular-season nonconference games and 10-4 in playoff games, including 5 playoff wins en route to the 2013 Class 6A state title.
However, coach Dennis Piron and staff must replace seven starters on either side of the ball from a team that went 10-2 and made a Class 7A quarterfinal appearance, including all-state quarterback Kyle Niemiec and all-area standouts like wide receiver Canaan Coffey and defensive end Derek Nutley, the latter named 2015 UEC River defensive player of the year.
Can the Bulldogs rely on program depth to reload and make a run at a sixth straight title?
"If we get good, solid play from our quarterback, and I believe we will, yes, we will be a very, very good football team," Piron said last week. "If someone beats us, they will be a very special team."
Senior Ben Weerts (6-foot-2, 193 pounds) and junior Riley Cooper (5-11, 165) were competing for the vacant quarterback job throughout camp.
Senior-laden St. Charles North hopes to be the "special team" that ends Batavia's run.
The centerpiece of the talent array on Red Gate Road is the offensive line, where NIU-bound lineman Isaac Hawn (6-6, 293) and 6-5, 300-pound Sam Ambrogio both return. They'll block for all-area running back Eric Lins, a three-year starter who last season rushed for 850 yards and 13 touchdowns in 100 attempts.
Senior quarterback Zach Mettetal, a baseball player ticketed for Memphis, last year threw for 1,932 yards and 22 touchdowns on 124-of-198 passing. He'll target a group of receivers led by senior Griffin Hammer, a 6-foot-5, 231-pound Colorado State recruit who last year made 36 catches for 492 yards and 7 touchdowns.
The North Stars were the last team to beat Batavia on Oct. 15, 2010. They hope to repeat the trick just over six years later when the squads meet in the season finale at Batavia on Oct. 21. The North Stars face Geneva on Oct. 14. North's only 4 regular-season losses the last two seasons were to Geneva and Batavia.
"We know this is now our time to do it," St. Charles North coach Rob Pomazak told the Daily Herald last week. "We are good on paper. We are telling the kids right now we have a lot of talent but we need to be a team. The kids are buying into it."
Geneva, the last team not named Batavia to win the UEC River, finished second in the division last year, losing only to the rival Bulldogs 24-14 in Week 8.
However, the Vikings are a completely revamped team. New players are slotted to fill all 22 positions. Geneva coach Rob Wicinski said his team will be competitive despite its lack of experience.
"I think we could be strong on defense," Wicinski said. "We have to shorten the game and squeeze it down. Last year we had skill guys with big plays. Now, we just need to get to the fourth quarter and get our running game going. It'll be pretty vanilla. We can't get into shootouts and chase a lot of points."
St. Charles East finished fourth in the division last season and 4-5 overall, but the Saints believe they'll be much sharper in their second year operating the triple-option offense. They have the veteran personnel to make the complicated scheme work, like senior quarterback Zach Mitchell, senior receiver Justin Galante, senior wingback Dante Macaluso and sophomore tailback Justin Jett, the latter of whom rushed for 3 touchdowns as a freshman.
"As a coaching staff we don't feel like that (4-5 record) is acceptable for this team or this program -- and the kids don't feel that is acceptable," St. Charles East coach Bryce Farquhar said. "I feel we have everything it takes. We just have to execute."
Streamwood hopes to make a permanent move to the league's upper tier following back-to-back 3-6 seasons and a fifth-place finish in the seven-team UEC River. The Sabres pin those hopes on the return of 20 seniors and 6-foot-5 junior quarterback Brendon Marton, who as a sophomore threw for 959 yards and 7 touchdowns.
"We're trying to move forward as a program," second-year Streamwood coach Don Guindon said. "We're always trying to take that next step."
Larkin could be the UEC River dark horse after a 1-8 season in 2015. The Royals aren't a particularly big team, but they have as much speed as any team.
More importantly, Larkin's senior class has bought in fully to the turnaround third-year coach Dragan Teonic is attempting to execute, which translated to the best off-season weight room attendance the program has seen in years. Eight Royals enter their third varsity season, including quarterback David Hibbler (1,401 yards, 8 TD, 8 its.)
"We had a core group of 35 that showed up for 80 percent of our weight lifting and summer camp stuff so we're light years ahead of where we've been this time of year." Teonic said.
Elgin enters the season looking to end a 10-game slide after a winless campaign last fall. Second-year coach Anthony Mason said the Maroons will be better, though several players will have to play both ways.
"They're committed to hard work and committed to this program," Mason said of his players. "They not only made a vow to that commitment but they're putting it in action by working hard every day."