Tensions were high when Luke Mertens took over the football program at Lake Zurich last spring.
And understandably so. The former Lakes coach was walking into an impossible situation: a program that was making headlines for all the wrong reasons, including accusations of hazing and bullying with a sexual nature.
The program was under a microscrope, losing its head coach in the process. The athletic director left, as did others in the fray.
Mertens says he was under the microscope, too.
"Everyone was on edge, and I was an unknown," Mertens said. "No one really knew anything about me. It was like, 'Who is this guy and what is he going to change?' Most people don't like change. And especially under those circumstances, it was even tougher. It was just an intense time."
That has disapated.
"There's a much better level of 'comfortableness' with everyone now," Mertens said. "There is a much better understanding of what I am about and what the expectations are. I think everyone is starting to feel a lot more at home with everything."
Mertens says the Bears and the football program in general won't be dodging the issues of the past. He wants everyone associated with the team to face them head on and accept ownership of them. But he is also encouraging his players to operate moving forward, with an eye on the future.
And the future could be bright for the Bears, who return a total of 12 starters, seven on offense and five on defense, from an 8-3 season in 2016.
Quarterback Evan Lewandowski returns and has impressed Mertens with his command of the offense and the huddle.
"He is just a very smart quarterback," Mertens said of Lewandowski. "He really understands the game and he's got a nice arm and good arm strength. Quarterback is one of the most important positions. Everything runs through him on offense. There is a lot on his shoulders, but I think he's ready for it."
Mertens is looking for a balanced attack and will also rely heavily on veteran running back Joey Stutzman, who got major reps last year filling in for the injured Kyle Roth.
"I've been very impressed with Joey's toughness," Mertens said. "He's not the biggest kid in the world (5-foot-7, 160 pounds), but every coach wants a kid like this on the field. His effort is 100 percent all the time. And you see the same effort in practice that you see in games."
Wide receivers Robert Hinsberger and Matthijs Enters, who boast a nice combination of athleticism, speed and good hands, also return as do offensive linemen Yianni Manousaridis and Riley Pemstein.
"I'm not sure exactly what our identity will be on offense," Mertens said with a laugh. "Mostly it's going to be whatever we do well. That's what we'll do."
Meanwhile, the defense will be anchored by one of the most highly-touted linebackers in the area: senior Jack Sanborn. Sanborn has already committed to the University of Wisconsin.
"He's everything you want in a football player," Mertens said of Sanborn. "He's great with talent, but he also makes the guys around him better, talking to them, putting them in the right positions."
Stutzman will also play some linebacker again this year, and George Gritsonis is also a returnig linebacker after starting some games last year as a sophomore. He will see some reps at running back this year, too.
On the defensive line, Jackson Farsalas and Travis Katzenberger return.
"We have a nice, typical Lake Zurich defense," Mertens said. "We have athleticism, tenacity and a great team defense approach."