After missing the playoffs following back-to-back 4-5 seasons, St. Charles East's football team improved significantly a year ago.
Coach Bryce Farquhar's Saints captured their first Upstate Eight Conference River Division title -- dethroning 5-time defending champion Batavia -- and compiled an 11-game winning streak, tying a school record for most single-season victories (1998).
While their playoff run ended with a 10-6 Class 8A state quarterfinal loss to Palatine last November, the Saints enjoyed a bounce-back season like few others.
"Our coaches and kids bought into the system just as a whole, said Farquhar, who brings a 19-11 record into his fourth season as head coach. "We had great parental support, community support and administrative support.
"It all kind of came together last year."
Although football is regarded as a physical sport, the proper mental approach played an important role in the Saints' success, something Farquhar hopes will carry into this season.
"They started believing in themselves," said the coach. "That's a big part -- mentally understanding what you can do. Believe in the person next to you and believe in yourself. Once they had that confidence, it just started rolling."
Speed also played a huge part, as an undersized defense limited opponents to an average of 10 points per game.
"We were really quick last year and I think we'll be pretty quick again this year," said Farquhar of a defensive unit that returns 6 all-conference players -- defensive backs Nick Garlisch, Clayton Isbell, Yalon Rogers, linebacker Abe Swanson, and linebackers-linemen Pat Griffin and Nico Piaskowy.
"Everybody likes to play outside the tackles these days. We feel our speed guys have a lot to do with our success. We might not play traditional players at traditional spots but those guys believe they can play at a high level. They're very physical and they're very fast. That fits into what we want to do."
Offensively, Isbell takes over at quarterback for since-graduated Zach Mitchell (1,861 total yards, 24 TDs), surrounded by a stable of backfield mates that includes South Dakota State-bound Garlisch, Swanson and junior third-year varsity player Justin Jett (all-UEC River).
"Our skilled guys are just another year older," said Farquhar. "I've been impressed with everything Clayton has done so far. His knowledge of the game and his ability to understand where people are in our offense are unbelievable."
Seniors Josh Luedtke (WR-DB) and Mike Abruzzo (WR-DB) also figure to contribute on both sides of the ball while Matt Burns returns as the team's kicker.
With the exception of junior returning starter Justin Hull, the offensive line will have a new look.
"We have a lot of guys to replace on the O-line but we moved up two freshmen -- Dylan Barrett and Alex Cox -- last year to varsity for the last few games to get them some reps," said Farquhar. "They're going to be in those spots."
St. Charles East opens its season at home Aug. 25 against Rock Island before a grueling 3-week stretch against conference rivals Geneva, St. Charles North and Batavia (Sept. 15-29).
"It's nice to have a target on your back because you've worked hard to get there but it's staying up there that is the hard part," said Farquhar.