If anyone tells you they know how the DuPage Valley Conference football season will turn out, don't believe them.
The DVC's coaches sure won't.
"To me it's totally up in the air," said Glenbard North coach Ryan Wilkens. "I don't see a poor team in the conference."
With last year's struggling teams all looking improved, the DVC could be as balanced as ever. Glenbard North, though, might be the closest thing you'll find to a "favorite."
No team in DuPage County boasts the Panthers' skill level with fourth-year varsity running back Vittorio Tricase, who last season rushed for 1,072 yards, returning quarterback Shane Conway and Northwestern-bound receiver-defensive back Jace James. Throw in college-caliber defensive backs Greg Newsome and Tyrik Henderson, and other two-way standouts like Jayleen Fitzpatrick, and it should be a special season for Glenbard North.
All that talent still won't make it easy for the Panthers to win their first DVC title since 2013. Waubonsie Valley, a Class 8A semifinalist last year, returns 16 starters from a group that beat last season's top two teams -- Naperville Central and Glenbard North.
Replacing all-everything Max Ihry and quarterback Jack Connolly -- 85 percent of last year's offense -- will be tough, but the Warriors have much to lean on. New quarterback Tanner Westwood proved himself as a playmaker last season, and he's got one of the area's top targets in 6-foot-4 tight end Charles Robinson.
Speaking of targets, they don't play much better than Neuqua Valley's Isaiah Robertson, a Notre Dame recruit who last season caught 50 passes and made 81 tackles at defensive back. Paired with Navy-bound Owen Piche, the big-play potential is tremendous.
Defensively, Neuqua Valley is just as strong. Anthony Ippolito, Jon Rhattigan and Casey Larson are all back at linebacker. JaQuere Williams is among the DVC's top cornerbacks.
"If we can accept our roles and do our part, we could have a very successful season this year," said Wildcats coach Bill Ellinghaus.
Defending DVC champion Naperville Central won't relinquish the top spot without a fight even though, beyond Western Michigan-bound lineman Trevor Campbell, the Redhawks suffered tremendous offensive graduation losses.
Naperville Central reloads with its defense, headlined by safety-linebacker Luke Turner, linebackers Laddie Skarecky and Troy Hudetz, and lineman Joe Gannon.
Naperville North eyes a major program revival after two down seasons. Sixteen starters return, nine on defense. The entire defensive line is back in addition to linebackers Derek Amend and Jake Jegglie, and defensive backs Grant Ericksen, Cam Hardy and Kiser Floyd.
Like the last couple of years, Lake Park is tying its playoff hopes to its defensive play. It's in good hands again with linemen Jacub Panasiuk, a Michigan State recruit, and Matt Paulauskas. Strong line play also holds true at Metea Valley, where Charles Anderson and Michael Robinson lead the defense.
"When we joined the DVC we committed to having a great defense, and now we're starting to balance that out," said Lake Park coach Chris Roll. "Now we're working to build our offense."
Wheaton North and Wheaton Warrenville South uncharacteristically failed to make the playoffs last year, but both teams plan to change that. The Falcons are led by one of the DVC's top linebacker groups in Erik Mueller, Nevada recruit Danny Walker and Bo Neidballa. WW South builds on its summer 7-on-7 success with quarterback Matt Dohse.
"At one point I thought we had 20 Division I kids in our conference, and I think I cut it short," said Naperville North coach Sean Drendel. "It might be closer to 30."
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