Naperville Central starts fresh after difficult 2021 spring season
After a dark and gloomy offseason, the Naperville Central football team welcomed a bit of good fortune on Monday morning.
As the weather forecast tilted toward a possible rainout of the first official day of high school football practice, the Redhawks remained optimistic about the start of practice.
Right before the 10 a.m. practice, the skies cleared and everything was back to normal. For the Redhawks, back to normal is a good sign following a tumultuous offseason that led to numerous off-the-field headlines.
First off, longtime coach Mike Stine announced his retirement following a 6-0 record in the abridged spring season. Then, in late May, the IHSA sanctioned the football program for violating several bylaws related to student-athlete transfers.
Naperville Central first-year coach Mike Ulreich said the start of fall practice started off without a hitch -- a good sign for the program.
"The (weather) cleared right before the start of practice," Ulreich said. "Sometimes you have grand expectations for day one of football, so the weather cooperated. We had a tremendous summer, and we're excited to build off that momentum and the kids had a great demeanor.
"Today, the first thing we talked about in our team meeting was that we really want to separate ourselves from our competition."
Naperville Central senior right guard Max Grumbles, who started at left guard last season, said the entire program is ready for a fresh start.
"It was great to see that the weather passed through quickly, and there was not a setback at all," Grumbles said. "All of the guys were really excited to get back out there and finally have a full season to be best we can be. We were all feeding off each other's energy, while the coaches were all pushing us to be our best."
Ulreich said the team is focused on building off a strong summer following a different period early in late May and early June.
"We talked about this a lot in the spring, when the (transfer) story came out mid-May," Ulreich said. "Our conversations with our kids were that we were going to stand tall throughout all this, and approach our work with a certain demeanor and competing at a certain level, especially with the way we carried ourselves.
"We were going to stand tall. This wasn't a problem of any kid on our team. In May, they faced some hostility on social media, and when we play our rivals, we will hear it again. But since that May meeting, we've moved on. We're really excited about his fall."
And there's every reason to believe in Ulreich's optimism about his team.
Ulreich said the Redhawks bring back five starters on offense, led by quarterback Owen Prucha, wide receiver Reggie Fleurima, running back Niko Gordon and tight end Luke Roy. Defensively, the Redhawks suffered some big losses, mainly on the defensive line. Middle linebacker Ethan Pytlak is one of four starters returning on defense.
The offseason did bring some good news. Former star quarterback Jake Kolbe, who led the Redhawks to the Class 8A state title in 2013, is the new strength coach. Ulreich said several players benefitted from Kolbe's addition.
Senior left tackle Adrian Alvarado said the team wants to continue the program's success on the field.
"Everybody was locked in on the first day of practice," he said. "I'm so excited to see what our offense can do, especially with our wide receivers in Reggie Fleurima and Justin Boomgarden. I already have a bond with Owen, so I'm excited to protect him and be there for him. We're all ready for the opener against Hinsdale Central."