It's the end of the Upstate Eight as we know it, and most feel fine.
This marks the final season before conference tectonics shift yet again, reshaping the local football landscape in general and the Upstate Eight Conference in particular.
Following the 2017-18 school year, UEC members St. Charles East, St. Charles North, Batavia and Geneva will merge with exiting DuPage Valley Conference members Wheaton Warrenville South, Wheaton North, Glenbard North and Lake Park to form the new DuKane Conference.
"It's hard to find enough opponents who can field teams at the lower levels in multiple sports so moving to the DuKane Conference is the right move for our school," St. Charles North football coach Rob Pomazak said. "I'm excited for next year."
The remaining UEC schools -- Glenbard East, West Aurora, East Aurora, West Chicago, Elgin, Larkin, Streamwood, Bartlett and South Elgin -- welcome Glenbard South next fall. That makes the future UEC a 10-team league with a true round-robin football schedule.
That's music to the ears of the Elgin Area School District U-46 coaches. The U-46 schools lost some natural rivalry games against each other in 2010-11, when the UEC expanded from 11 to 14 and split into two divisions. Bartlett and South Elgin were assigned to the Valley Division while Elgin, Larkin and Streamwood were placed in the River Division.
"I'm looking forward to the change going forward into 2018," Bartlett coach Eric Ilich said. "We'll be reigniting some of the local rivalries again. We've got really good coaches in U-46 and guys are doing a nice job at Elgin, Larkin, Streamwood and South Elgin. It'll be cool because we're all trying to build our football programs."
Both UEC races are up for grabs in the final season of the two-division format.
St. Charles East (11-1, 6-0) rode a stingy defense and a grind-it-out triple-option offense to an undefeated UEC River championship last fall, ending Batavia's five-year run of division titles.
The Saints hope to capitalize on the momentum gained from last year's Class 8A quarterfinal appearance with veterans returning at key spots. Defensively, six all-UEC River picks return: linebacker Abe Swanson, hybrid linebackers/linemen Nico Piaskowy and Pat Griffin and defensive backs Clayton Isbell, Nick Garlisch and Yalon Rogers.
Offensively, Garlisch and junior fullback Justin Jett return to the backfield, and the athletic Isbell steps in at quarterback in place of All-Area honorary captain Zach Mitchell. They will operate behind a rebuilt offensive line.
"I think it's pretty balanced this year," Saints coach Bryce Farquhar said of the UEC River. "Batavia is going to be really good this year, (St. Charles) North has a good squad, Geneva has some kids coming up and Larkin played really well last year. I could see them taking another step this year."
St. Charles North (9-2, 5-1) enjoyed its best season to date in 2016, when the North Stars set a program record for wins and advanced to the second round of the Class 7A playoffs.
Returning from that successful team is MVP Lucas Sebogiano, who totaled 17 touchdowns and 1,300 all-purpose yards, plus a bevy of skill-position players like junior receiver/corner Tyler Nubin and slot receiver Jack Lewis. Senior Michael Hohensee (6-2, 205) takes over at quarterback. North's defense returns Tobi Adedara. The junior end has offers from Dayton and North Dakota.
"We started four sophomores last year and they're all back and a bunch of juniors, so we're real young," Pomazak said. "It's a different team from what we had last year but I feel it may be a better team top to bottom."
Batavia (8-3, 4-2) aims for a return to the top of the UEC River. Following losses to the St. Charles schools in 2016, the Bulldogs failed to win the title for the first time since 2010. However, they did win a playoff game against McHenry before falling 28-14 at Jacobs.
Six returning offensive starters and six on defense should have the proud program challenging for first place once again. Senior Reggie Phillips rushed for 1,039 yards and 9 touchdowns last year and senior safety Michael Niemiec set a single-season tackling record with 123.
"I think Geneva will be better and St. Charles North will be very good again, but I think St. Charles East is going to be an incredible football team," said Batavia coach Dennis Piron, whose team lost 28-7 to the Saints last season. "The kid they're putting at quarterback (Clayton Isbell) is special. Larkin will be pretty good and Elgin will be better. It's going to be tough."
Larkin (4-5, 2-4) was on the cusp of its first playoff breakthrough since 2006, but an upset at the hands of previously winless Elgin in Week 9 scuttled the plan. Undeterred, the Royals have the look of a team determined to reach the postseason, led by third-year running back Kindrel "Nomo" Morris -- a Class 7A All-State honorable mention pick -- and four returning offensive linemen.
"I'm excited about the program and the number of quality kids we have out," fourth-year Larkin coach Dragan Teonic said. "Our conference is always tough. East should be loaded, Batavia has 80 guys on varsity, North is going to be good, Geneva is always decent and Streamwood has that tall quarterback. I'm not sure if Elgin will win a lot of games but they have some ballplayers, some talented dudes."
Geneva (3-6, 2-4) aims for a bounce-back season after failing to make the playoffs for the first since 2012. Six returnees on defense will help, including senior safeties Troy Tams and Ian Hanson and linemen Cole Campbell, Blake McAvoy and Noah Hood.
The Geneva offense is almost all new. Only guard Riley Anderson started last year.
"Batavia, I think, is the favorite," said Geneva coach Rob Wicinski, entering his 19th season. "It'll be really interesting to see if (St. Charles) East can maintain, and North has been coming for the last few years. They've been very skilled and very big. I'd say we're fourth out of those guys easily."
Streamwood (3-6, 1-5) is led by third-year quarterback Brendon Marton. The 6-5, 195-pound senior is protected by bookend tackles Julian Flores (6-3, 270) and Elijah Beach (6-4, 240).
The Sabres have many positions manned by newcomers, fearless newcomers, according to third-year coach Don Guindon. "Our kids know Batavia and some of these schools have kids who are bigger, but our guys just want to go out and play football and hit stuff."
Elgin (1-8, 1-5) snapped an 18-game losing streak in the final game of the 2016 season by beating Larkin 26-20. Led by two-way player Roy Panthier (6-4, 210), who has interest from Wyoming and North Dakota, the Maroons hope to climb out of the UEC River basement and challenge for a playoff spot.
"I think we fall in the middle somewhere," said third-year Elgin coach Anthony Mason, a former NIU defensive back. "I'm hoping we can beat one of the big wigs in the conference."
How competitive was UEC Valley Division champion West Aurora last year?
The Blackhawks went undefeated in the regular season, secured their first conference title since 1983 and their second straight playoff berth. They then pushed eventual Class 8A state champion Maine South to the brink in a first-round playoff game before a fumble at the 1-yard line cost them a chance to take the lead late in the fourth quarter of a 42-40 loss.
Though West Aurora (9-1, 5-0) graduated its starting linebackers and several key skill position players from that record-setting squad, it returns a highly valuable commodity.
"It's the best offensive line we've had in my years here as coach," seventh-year Blackhawks coach Nate Eimer said. "Our strength is definitely up front. Otherwise, we have some unproven guys so it'll be more of a process, which is OK, but in the end I think we'll be competing and playing some good football."
South Elgin (4-5, 4-1) won the UEC Valley in 2015 but slipped to second place a year ago. Led by versatile quarterback/safety Nate Gomez, one of the league's signature talents, and senior linebacker/lineman Kyle Viverito, the Storm intend to challenge for their second league title in three seasons. Fourth-year coach Pat Pistorio knows the path isn't easy.
"West Aurora, just seeing what's been going on over there and where their program is headed, they are definitely the team to beat in the conference," Pistorio said. "And Glenbard East's quarterback is someone to keep an eye on. They always have a tough group that pushes us to the limit every time. Those are the top two with everyone else after that with us in the mix. There's a lot of parity in the conference."
Bartlett (4-5, 3-2) returns two starters from a team that finished third in the UEC Valley. Linebacker/end Cam Montbriand made 34 tackles last season and offensive lineman Mike Oakes is back, but inexperience will be a challenge in Ilich's second season.
Glenbard East (2-7, 2-3) returns a pair of all-UEC Valley performers, both juniors. Quarterback Bret Bushka rushed for 439 yards and 6 touchdowns and threw for 1,359 yards and 10 scores. Linebacker Jack Baka was the Rams' second-leading tackler with 73.
Glenbard East must fill the vacancies left on both sides of the line by graduation. Seventh-year coach John Walters said West Aurora is "obviously" the team to beat and "South Elgin is going to be a little better than they were last year. They had a really tough schedule."
West Chicago (1-8, 1-4) should have an improved offensive line, led by senior Noah Kottke. That's critical for a triple-option offense led by returning rushers Frank Aniello and Jeremy Grant, the latter of whom doubled as the team's third-leading tackler.
East Aurora (1-8, 0-5) will debut artificial turf this season following a $7.1 million rebuild of Roy E. Davis Field and the surrounding stadium complex. However, the UEC Valley favorite is located on the other side of town.
"West Aurora was a state-caliber team last year so I think if they play anywhere near where they were able to play last year, they're the favorite," Ilich said. "It was cool to see them basically 1 yard away from beating the eventual state champion after running the table undefeated.
"It's a competitive league. We're looking forward to the challenge."