Fox Valley area teams excited to get started
Autumn encroached on summer Monday as high school football practices opened across Illinois.
Here's a look at five Fox Valley area teams as they prepare for their respective Aug. 25 season openers.
An impressive streak was snapped last season when St. Charles East defeated Batavia 28-7 and went on to win the Upstate Eight Conference's River Division, thus ending Batavia's five-year title run. The loss was Batavia's first in 34 UEC River games.
Who will win the UEC River title in the last go round before Batavia, Geneva and the St. Charles schools depart for the new DuKane Conference in 2018-19? St. Charles East and St. Charles North will be strong once again, Geneva should enjoy a bounce back from a 3-6 season and Larkin should remain competitive after narrowly missing the playoffs last year. All must contend with the 80-man Batavia varsity, the program's largest contingent since 2013.
A reason for optimism is quarterback Riley Cooper, who split time at the position as a junior. The 5-foot-11, 165-pound senior completed 65 percent of his passes (91-of-140) for 972 yards and 9 touchdowns and was intercepted only 4 times.
"I've personally enjoyed seeing Riley Cooper improve," Batavia coach Dennis Piron said. "He did a wonderful job this summer. To his credit he really took care of getting stronger, faster, better. His release is better, his timing is better. Everything stepped up a level and I'm very pleased where that young man is at."
Cooper will be protected by some big offensive linemen like seniors Nolan Eike (6-6, 295) and Chris Monroe (6-3, 250), but the line "is the area we have to improve the quickest," Piron said.
Five starters return on defense, led by strong safety Andrew Heinz (6-3, 195). The senior was one of Batavia's most active defenders a year ago with 7.3 tackles per game, 8.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles.
The Trojans enter the A.P. era -- after Pennington -- with an air of confidence following a 10-2 season that ended in the Class 6A quarterfinals with a 35-21 loss at DeKalb.
Cary-Grove opens practice for the first time since 2012 minus Tyler Pennington, a walk-on at Arkansas. The four-year varsity fullback and linebacker finished 15th on the IHSA career rushing list.
The offense should remain potent with senior Max Skol taking over at fullback. Skol filled in at the position for a few games last year due to Pennington's sprained ankle and was highly effective. Overall, their third-year varsity performer carried 61 times for 335 yards (5.5-yard average) and 7 touchdowns.
Whoever carries the ball for Cary-Grove will benefit from a strong offensive line that features returning starters Addison West (6-3, 270), who has an offer from Central Michigan, center Colton Ruhland (6-1, 250), who has an offer from Winona State, and guard Cadin Koeppel (6-0, 210). Cracking the starting lineup this season is senior Brett Groves (6-5, 310), who recently committed to Southern Illinois.
"That's got to be our strength right now," Cary-Grove coach Brad Seaburg said of the offensive line. "Overall, we have a good mix. We have a good number of seniors and you need seniors to win, but we have a good mix of juniors and sophomores, too, which makes for healthy competition and that's what we're looking for."
The Trojans are thrown directly into the fire on opening night. They travel to District 155 rival Prairie Ridge, the defending Class 6A state champion, led by Iowa-bound option quarterback Samson Evans. Prairie Ridge defeated Cary-Grove 26-14 in the 2016 season opener.
The Storm make the longest season-opening road trip of any area team -- 1,192 miles to be exact.
South Elgin will play Miami private school Ransom Everglades at the Disney complex in Orlando on Aug. 25.
In all, 71 varsity and sophomore players either paid their own way or took part in fundraising efforts to cover costs. They will depart after school on Wednesday, Aug. 23 and return on Monday, Aug. 27, joined by the school's cheerleaders and dance team and about 20 fans.
"We're excited because we're all about allowing kids to see where football can take them," South Elgin coach Pat Pistorio said. "I think this experience could mimic the college football experience and it could push forward some of our players who are on the fence about playing at the college level.
"And for those that aren't going to play college football, it will be a great experience. Many of them otherwise wouldn't have the means to leave the Elgin area. I think it shows them that putting in hard work and achieving goals can equate to something cool."
South Elgin will be led by third-year quarterback Nate Gomez, the Daily Herald's All-Area baseball honorary captain last spring and an all-area football pick last fall. As a junior he completed 65 of 104 attempts (62.5 percent) for 899 yards and 11 touchdowns. At safety he made 24 tackles. Gomez will see time on both sides of the ball once again, Pistorio said.
The Green Wave can usually absorb three or four injuries and remain competitive, but their 2016 season deteriorated after a slew of season-ending injuries that led to the program losing its final five games and missing the playoffs for the first time in since 2012 and only the third time since 2009.
"It was almost like I couldn't believe what I was seeing," 13th-year coach Mike Rolando said. "It was like a bad joke. It was unbelievable but we got through it and we've got a good group coming back."
Rolando's roster of 26 is strong by the Class 4A school's standards. Starters return at 20 of 22 positions, though several are manned by two-way performers as is the norm at St. Edward.
Key returnees include third-year quarterback Dylan Mlinarich, Saveon Smith and Tyler Holte. Mlinarich last season completed 214 of 376 passes for 2,812 yards and 33 touchdowns. Smith, a shifty playmaker, was injured most of last season. When healthy in 2015, he averaged 23.7 yards per catch, the second highest average in program history. Holte last year set program records for single-season receptions (63) and receiving yards (673).
The Green Wave open the season at home against perennial Class 5A contender Metamora on Aug. 25.
The Hawks have some roles to fill upon the graduation of multiple key contributors to last year's 4-5 team, including two-way player Nolan Bernat, now a preferred walk-on at Illinois.
Second-year coach Eric Ilich believes Bartlett has some potential playmakers who can help the Hawks challenge the likes of defending Upstate Eight Valley champion West Aurora and fellow contenders South Elgin and Glenbard East, dependable performers like defensive end/linebacker Cam Montbriand and offensive lineman Mike Oakes. However, his primary concern is building men first, football players second.
"It's really just trying to grow the kids, trying to get them to mature and grow into the young men they are," Ilich said of his overall approach to August practices. "You never stop teaching responsibility, accountability, showing up every day. You never stop teaching that they have to get better at anything they try whether as a student, as a son, as a teammate, as a football player.
"You try to get them on the same page as far as developing ownership in what they're doing. That's showing up and being part of something bigger than themselves. It's bigger than Xs and Os. It's about growing into a responsible young man and being part of a team that's bigger than the sum of its parts."
Bartlett opens the season at Conant, which went 0-9 last season. The Hawks beat the Cougars 6-0 in the 2016 season opener.