5 things to watch this season for DuPage County football teams
Summer went by quickly.
For DuPage County football players and coaches, maybe not quickly enough.
Like teams throughout the state, DuPage County teams kicked off practice Monday, working toward the first Friday night of football Aug. 24.
Up for a challenge
IC Catholic Prep football always welcomes a challenge.
A potential whopper awaits the two-time defending Class 3A champion.
Since winning the 2016 and 2017 titles by a combined score of 78-0, should the Knights qualify for the playoffs this season the Illinois High School Association success adjustment will bump them into Class 4A. Non-boundaried schools that have won two trophies in the same class over the past four school terms, or at least one trophy in the past two terms, are subject to the adjustment.
That puts IC Catholic in the realm of Morris, Althoff Catholic -- the Knights' opener Aug. 24 at Illinois Wesleyan -- and Rochester, which has won seven 4A titles in the last eight seasons.
"Let me title your article: 'Not even in Rochester and Althoff's league,'" offered ICCP coach Bill Krefft, a member of Knights state championship teams as a player (2002), assistant coach (2008) and head coach.
That remains to be seen.
IC Catholic graduated stalwarts such as Dylan Packer, Lazerick Eatman and C.J. West, who rose from third-string quarterback to throw 24 touchdown passes with only 5 interceptions after an early injury sidelined senior starter Luke Ricobene. Krefft and his excellent staff still return a ton of experience and skill from what actually was a young team.
Among the top players in Illinois' Class of 2018, 6-foot-4, 215-pound, Purdue-bound receiver-linebacker Khali Saunders is back as is twin brother Khalil, a well-regarded defensive back vying for the quarterback slot with junior Tommy Ryan.
The Knights bring back four of their top five receivers from last season and may feature a "by committee" ground game led by sophomore Kyle Franklin, who in 2017 ran for 927 yards and 11 touchdowns in spot duty.
A key facet of ICCP's recent success that started with a 2015 Class 3A semifinal appearance is an ability to get even freshmen up to varsity speed by practicing alongside upperclassmen. This depth is evident on the lines, where the Knights return four starting offensive linemen plus others who rotated in. Defensively, their top seven leading tacklers are back, including linebackers Kevin Cooke and Kemon Reese and linemen Ricky Mysliwiec and Kobe Reed.
Krefft calls the potential Class 4A playoff bracket "a learning experience." In many ways the Knights are ahead of the curve.
"We're excited to have the chance to compete with them and see where we stand up," he said. "Time will tell if we belong there or if we belong back in 3A."
In 2017 Glenbard West's defense got put on immediate notice in a 62-34 season-opening loss to Maine South. The Hilltoppers responded with nine straight wins before losing in the second round of the Class 8A playoffs.
Like the Week 1 loss, that didn't sit well. Now, seven returning defensive starters give Glenbard West coach Chad Hetlet reason for optimism.
"Generally, when we do have guys back on defense we're pretty special," said Hetlet, whose teams had reached at least the semifinals each season from 2012-16 with Class 7A titles in 2012 and 2015.
Three-year starting defensive lineman Marky Winters and linebackers Jayden Rogers, Otis Nevins and Kyle Dell are among the stoppers. Offensively, senior running back Tyquan Cox returns sprinter's speed, shiftiness and a 1,000-yard junior season.
"He's more explosive than anybody we've ever had at Glenbard West," Hetlet said of Cox.
Blending juniors off last season's 9-0 sophomore campaign and seniors one play away from their own perfect sophomore slate, the Hilltoppers are ready.
"Our kids want to be in the mix for a state title again," Hetlet said. "It's going to be a long road and it's our kids' goal. After that second-round loss last year I think they're hungry to get back out onto the field."
It took Cox's 88-yard kickoff return to edge Hinsdale Central 14-9 in 2017. The Red Devils, boasting multiple returning starters on each side of the ball, look to push Glenbard West if not reclaim the West Suburban Silver title they won in 2016.
Returning offensive lineman Brendon Passarelli, linebacker Aidan Cruickshank and running back Luke Skokna all were 2017 all-conference picks. Quarterback Matt Rush was headed there before injury intervened. Hinsdale Central is particularly experienced where it often counts most, on the offensive line.
Benet Academy hasn't dipped below a 6-4 record since 2011. The Redwings have reached the 7A semifinals three times in the last six seasons and each of the last two, including last season's 23-13 loss to defending champion Batavia.
As usual Benet will battle Marist and loaded Nazareth in the East Suburban Catholic Conference. The Redwings will do so with returning all-conference defenders Jack Benish, Mike Wymer, Billy Lawler and Jack Cooney.
Benet junior quarterback Colin Gillespie, who'll like handing off to senior back Ben Hickey, benefits from starting eight games after since-graduated Matt Boyle went down with an injury. Gillespie went 6-2 as a starter.
A Class 8A quarterfinalist and DuPage Valley Conference champion last season, Naperville Central returns one of Illinois' top quarterbacks in Payton Thorne, who threw for 25 touchdowns against only 6 interceptions. The Western Michigan recruit will sling behind third-year starting lineman Luke Hallstrom, now playing center and officially the strongest Redhawk in program history at a combined 1,400 pounds lifted on bench, squat, clean and overhead press.
Naperville Central's returners also include all-DVC safety Jack Jopes, linebackers Matt Ranieri and Matt Oliver, cornerback Justin Agema, receiver Cade McDonald, H-back Jared Suchevits and running back Danny Hughes. Defensive end Ben Cianchetti may seem willowy at 6-5, 210 pounds, but his wrestling experience can bring people down.
"I like the core of our team," Naperville Central coach Mike Stine said. "There's some similarities to our 2013 (Class 8A championship) team based on our off-season work."
Neuqua Valley saw a seven-year playoff run end last season but Wildcats coach Bill Ellinghaus said, "we're going to get back to where we've been." He said he's got an expansive corps of players including three-year defensive starters Matt Quinn and Kyle Borske, linebacker Jacob Boumans and the slippery skill duo of back Will Chevalier and receiver Brandt Stare.
Dropping back down into Class 5A, should Montini reach the playoffs a 26th straight time the Broncos could be a handful. Illinois commit Nick Fedanzo will run behind an offensive line anchored by Kent State-bound Mike McNicholas and Jeremiah Banks-Wall. Receivers Zach Olson, Jermari Harris and Scott West bring the quicks. Linebacker Jackson Bruscianelli, among eight returning defensive starters, made 136 tackles as a junior.
"We've got a lot of team speed and I think that's going to be a big part of who we are this year," said Montini coach Mike Bukovsky.
To the surprise of nobody, Naperville Central senior quarterback Payton Thorne in May committed to Western Michigan University.
Thorne had the opportunity to attract more offers had he delayed his decision, but it probably wouldn't have mattered. For many reasons the Kalamazoo campus already feels like a second home.
Western Michigan coach Tim Lester is a Wheaton Warrenville South graduate whose quarterback coach was Jeff Thorne, Payton's father. The Tigers' coach at the time was John Thorne, Payton's grandfather.
Oh, and did we mention Jayden Reed -- Thorne's teammate with the Redhawks and Metea Valley -- is a freshman receiver at Western Michigan?
"It's really nice to have it all over with," Thorne said. "It's a fun process, but it's also stressful and kind of an interesting process. I love where I'm committed and super comfortable with the coaches."
Thorne leads another strong recruiting class in DuPage County highlighted by IC Catholic Prep two-way standout Khali Saunders, a Purdue commit.
Several players, including Lake Park's Patrick Panasiuk, are carrying on the strong tradition of offensive line play in DuPage County. He's on the opposite side of the ball as older brothers Mike and Jacub, both defensive linemen at Michigan State, but he's attracted offers from Ivy League schools and Navy.
Montini lineman Mike McNicholas is committed to Kent State while Naperville Central lineman Luke Hallstrom recently received an offer from Air Force. Montini running back Nick Fedanzo is an Illinois recruit and York linebacker Zane Heemsoth holds Mid-American Conference and Ivy League offers.
That's just a slice of the recruiting action going on in the area, and you can expect to see other area players garner scholarship offers as the season progresses.
It's the DuPage way.
New sideline faces
Mike Fitzgerald knew he wanted to be a head coach again. He just needed to find the right opportunity.
In February he was hired by York to replace Matt Monken, the Dukes' coach for four seasons. Fitzgerald inherits a program searching for its first playoff berth since 2011.
After spending the last two seasons as the offensive coordinator at Naperville North, Fitzgerald is ready to take on the challenge. He also spent six years as an offensive coordinator at Marist and was head coach at St. Francis in 2014 and 2015.
"I think the kids are hungry for change," Fitzgerald said. "They want to turn this thing around and they're working extremely hard. We were able to hit the ground running."
There's another new face in the West Suburban Silver in Joe Horeni, a Downers Grove South graduate who spent the last three seasons as Highland Park's coach. He takes the reins at Downers Grove North from venerable John Wander, who stepped down after 16 years at the helm and is now an assistant coach at Hinsdale South.
West Chicago also hired a new coach when Ted Monken resigned after four seasons. Jack Rustman took over the program in May.
An Arena League veteran who played at Johnsburg and Northern Michigan, Rustman was an assistant at Joliet West and Loyola before landing with the Wildcats.
Conference realignments have created more moving parts than the zone-read option. Of the eight conferences represented by DuPage County football teams, only the West Suburban and East Suburban Catholic remain unchanged.
The blockbuster is the debut of the DuKane Conference, Glenbard North, Lake Park, Wheaton North and Wheaton Warrenville South having departed the 43-year-old DVC to join former Upstate Eight schools Batavia, Geneva, St. Charles East and St. Charles North.
Batavia beat Glenbard North, Wheaton North and Benet on its title path, while St. Charles East and St. Charles North reached the second round of the Class 7A and 8A playoffs, respectively.
For those who left the DVC, numbers were an issue; all DuKane schools have football enrollments between 1,899 (Batavia) and 2,586 (Lake Park), whereas the current DVC school with the lowest 2018 enrollment, Waubonsie Valley, is at 2,642.
This leaves the DuPage Valley with Metea Valley, Naperville Central, Naperville North, Neuqua Valley and Waubonsie Valley. The five-member conference had to petition the IHSA to have its champion be playoff eligible -- a one-year-only deal.
Each team will play another DVC foe twice with the initial meeting being a nonconference game. These nonconference slates are brutal. Naperville Central, for example, faces Hinsdale Central, defending Class 8A champ Lincoln-Way East, Naperville North and, on the road, Trinity (Kentucky), which Mike Stine said has won two straight state titles and 25 overall.
"We have the nucleus, in my opinion with (school districts) 203 and 204, to be a great, great conference," said Neuqua Valley's Bill Ellinghaus. "It'd just be nice to have another team or three."
The Metro Suburban Conference added St. Francis, Aurora Christian and Bishop McNamara from separate leagues, lumping them all into the Metro Suburban Blue Division with IC Catholic, Wheaton Academy, Aurora Central Catholic and Riverside-Brookfield. Fenton shifts into the Metro Suburban Red, where the Bison will vie for their first conference title since 2010.
Glenbard South left the Metro Suburban (as did Walther Christian, to the Northeastern Athletic) for the Upstate Eight, now a league of 10 schools. That looks to change yet again in 2019 should West Aurora leave for the Southwest Prairie as reported.
Along with long-ago DVC foe West Chicago, Glenbard South now gets to play District 87 peer Glenbard East. Glenbard South coach Ryan Crissey said he and Glenbard East coach John Walters already have discussed initiating a traveling trophy.
"It's going to provide a level of excitement a natural rivalry can only do," Crissey said.
Lisle will play in a slimmer Interstate Eight Conference, with Westmont becoming one of eight IHSA football independents and Seneca leaving for the Sangamon Valley. Westmont's crazy-quilt schedule includes two Chicago teams, Burlington Central, downstate Warren (enrollment: 110), and a cultural exchange hosting Wallaceburg, Ontario.
Finally, Montini sticks in the Chicago Catholic League but mainly due to its league crossover record vacates the CCL Green, where it had won three titles in four seasons, for the upper-echelon CCL Blue. Loyola, Brother Rice, Providence and St. Rita await.
"We have to move up to the Blue, which is obviously a promotion, it's not a punishment," Bukovsky said.
It's a word you might be hearing a lot in the next few months.
And it might be the future of IHSA football.
In April the Football Advisory Committee unveiled a proposal to revamp the current playoff system in hopes of eliminating the never-ending conference jumping throughout the state. It'd also alleviate the struggles of finding nonconference games.
Instead of having conferences, the state would be divided into eight or nine-team districts based on enrollment and geography. There would be eight districts per class with the top four teams in each class qualifying for the playoffs.
The benefits of districts -- a system used in many states -- are many. They'd be a savior to the DuPage Valley Conference, which has only five schools and desperately sought nonconference competition in the off-season.
"I hope it happens," said Naperville North coach Sean Drendel. "Obviously everyone in the DVC wants it to happen. No one will play us, so districts would solve that problem."
It's a tougher sell, however, for a league like the West Suburban Conference, which has enjoyed stability since 1986.
"There's so much tradition," said Glenbard West coach Chad Hetlet. "I think it hurts a conference like ours that's been stable for so long. I can't imagine schools in our conference being fired up about districts."
Assuming the IHSA board of directors agrees to include the district system on the list of upcoming bylaw amendment proposals, it'll appear on the ballot for a statewide vote in November and December.
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