The South Elgin football program took strides in its 10th season by winning its first conference title and second playoff game.
Hit hard by graduation, can the Storm defend their Upstate Eight Conference Valley Division title against challenges from rival Bartlett and veteran West Aurora, both playoff teams a year ago?
"We think we can contend for the conference championship," South Elgin coach Pat Pistorio said.
The fourth-year coach has reason for optimism. He has two athletic quarterbacks to choose from in juniors Nate Gomez and Nate Smith and running backs with sprinter speed in Nico Woods and Desmond Lockett, a pair of track stars who helped the school's 400-meter relay team finish third at the state meet last spring.
However, South Elgin graduated most starters on either side of the ball. Wholesale changes are afoot, save for a few key holdovers like Woods, a two-way player, and offensive tackle Jeremy Jenkins (6-6, 260). Nevertheless, Pistorio said he thinks his program can absorb those losses and remain competitive. He said last week "anything less than the playoffs would be a disappointment and tough for us as coaches to swallow."
One of the most important games on the UEC Valley schedule takes place on Sept. 23 when South Elgin travels to West Aurora. Playing in front of their homecoming crowd, the Blackhawks hope to knock off the defending champs and put themselves in title contention.
West Aurora coach Nate Eimer would like to see his team capitalize on last year's breakthrough season, when the program reached the playoffs for the first time since 1993 and gave No. 1 seed Loyola Academy a test in a Class 8A first-round playoff game.
The Blackhawks graduated three-year quarterback Jonathan Doyle and tailback/linebacker Drake Spears (Western Michigan), but 10 starters return on defense from a team that went 5-5 and finished third in the UEC Valley, including all five linebackers. That group is headed by Daquan Cross, who led the unit in tackles as a sophomore and was second last year.
Daquan Cross also led the Blackhawks in rushing each of the last two seasons. Last fall he had 88 carries for 846 yards and 13 touchdowns and caught 10 passes for 155 yards.
Returning in the secondary is Davion Cross, DaQuan's twin brother. He'll play cornerback, running back and return punts. Last season Davion Cross led the team with 4 interceptions. He carried the ball 38 times for 280 yards and 4 touchdowns.
"We do talk about making the playoffs," Eimer said. "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."
Bartlett enters a new era under Eric Ilich, who becomes the program's third head coach since its inception in 1998.
The Hawks took second in the UEC Valley last season with a 4-1 record and reached the playoffs after a two-year absence. They finished 5-5.
The new coach's challenge in year one? Mitigate the effect of losing 90 percent of last year's starting lineup to graduation. The Hawks' most experienced unit is the offensive line, where center Erik Cook (5-10, 275) and tackle David Snyder (6-0, 280) return.
"The goal is to get better every day and the kids have been working hard enough to do that," Ilich said. "It's obvious to our coaching staff that we are a much better team than we were at the end of summer camp. In the truest sense of our process, we are ready to play four quarters of football. Our guys are conditioned to do that."
Glenbard East last season came close to notching the program's second-ever playoff berth and first since 1999, but the Rams had trouble closing out games they led. That resulted in a 4-5 record for the second year in a row. They went 2-3 against the UEC Valley and finished fourth.
The Rams must replace most of their skill position players. The strength of the team, according to coach John Walters, should be line play on both sides of the ball. Senior T.J. Walsh (6-foot-4, 280 pounds) returns to anchor the offensive line.
Defensively, the Rams attack with big linemen like ends Tom Flood (6-4 240), Zach Thornton (6-3, 210) and Tom Cederblad (6-6, 275) and tackles Camron Simmons (6-1, 275) and Brandon Raines (6-0, 285).
"I feel like we have some size and strength and speed up front to be really competitive and to help us with some of our younger players on the back end," Glenbard East coach John Walters said.
West Chicago finished fifth in the six-team UEC Valley last season, but third-year coach Ted Monken has three offensive linemen returning, led by two-way ironman Justin Ross (6-0, 280). Returning linebacker Devontae Pascal led the team in tackles last season (54 solo, 19 assists).
"I think our strength is going to be the dedication and leadership of our senior group," Monken said. "They've done a great job over the last nine months."
East Aurora, which finished 1-8 overall last season and 0-5 in division play, faces an off-the field challenge of sorts. The East Aurora School District 131 Board of Education recently approved demolishing Roy E. Davis stadium as part of major renovations to the East Aurora High School campus, according to a district release.
The new stadium will reopen in 2017 with a new synthetic turf field and an eight-lane track. Meanwhile, the school's football and soccer teams will play their home games at Aurora Christian.
With the UEC Valley wide open for the taking, Pistorio foresees a dramatic title chase between multiple contenders.
"Glenbard East is always a team that we've been competitive with," Pistorio said. "It always seems to come down to the wire against them. And West Aurora, just looking at some of their body types at big-man competitions over the summer, it looks like a group that can get it done. Plus, the Cross brothers are two athletes that can change a game real quick. But we think we can contend."
Daily Herald staff writer Dave Oberhelman and correspondent Craig Brueske contributed to this report.