Scouting the 2021 fall football season in the Interstate 8/Kishwaukee River Valley Conference
Here's how the football season looks in the Interstate 8/Kishwaukee River Valley Conference.
2021 spring record: 3-2
Coach: Pat Ryan (25-13, fifth season)
Worth noting: The Kaneland defense will be new -- all 11 starters in the spring 2021 season were seniors. Senior Billy Bruno will start at middle linebacker and is expected to anchor the group. The offense returns more, especially at the skill positions. Troyer Carlson started for the Knights under center as a freshman, and he will be flanked by a couple of senior weapons in Corey Phillips at running back and Sam Gagne at receiver.
2021 spring record: 5-0
Coach: Jose Medina (23-28, seventh season)
Worth noting: The Cavaliers are looking to build on back-to-back strong seasons after qualifying for the playoffs in 2019 -- their first postseason berth since 2009 -- and going undefeated in the spring. L-P returns a solid core from the spring squad, including all-conference picks in senior running back Matt Carrico, senior linebackers Chris Swayne and Luke Mertes, senior defensive backs Tre'von Hunter and Sean Whitfield and senior offensive linemen Will Daugherty and Aidan VanDuzer. Whitfield takes over as starting quarterback after playing running back/receiver last season and getting spot starts at QB the last two years. Whitfield had 309 total yards and five touchdowns in the spring.
2021 spring record: 3-2
Coach: Alan Thorson
Worth noting: Morris finished the shortened spring season with a bitter taste, dropping two of its three games on its new artificial turf field. It hopes to regain its traditional home-field dominance this season, behind a wealth of talent at the skill positions. Quarterback Zach Romak returns after throwing for more than 900 yards and 13 touchdowns in five games last season. His main target will be wide receiver Myles Johnston, who burst onto the scene last season in his first year of high school football by catching 17 passes for 276 yards and four TDs. The biggest question will be the offensive and defensive lines, but the offensive side will be anchored by junior Justin Hemmersbach (6-3, 250), a three-year starter. Also returning as a starter on the line is junior Nick Perry (6-2, 295).
2021 spring record: 0-6
Coach: Chad Gross (1-23, fourth year)
Worth noting: The Pirates come into the fall having lost 14 straight, but the improvement on the field in the spring was undeniable, especially late in the season during a gutsy Week 5 performance against Kaneland and an overtime loss in the finale at Rochelle. A big part of last year's improvement was the progression of then-junior quarterback Braiden Miller (72-140, 900 yards, 5 TDs, 12 INTs), who enters his senior season seeking new go-to targets out of a field led by the likes of fellow Ottawa Times All-Area First Team picks Ryder Miller and Conner Price as well as Ryan DeMoss, Levi Sheehan and Dylan Quatrano. Ottawa is eyeing Week 1 at Sandwich and Week 2 vs. Streator in a resumption of the state's third-oldest rivalry (begun in 1894) as good opportunities to record its first win since Week 1 of 2019.
2021 spring record: 6-0
Coach: Joe Ryan (116-67, 19th season)
Worth noting: The Spartans split the I8 title with the Cavaliers last season after winning it outright in their first season in the league (2019). They haven't lost a conference game since 2018, a 28-7 loss to Kaneland in a Northern Illinois Big 12 East contest. Eli Meier took over the starting job last year as a sophomore quarterback and will look to continue to grow in the position. He returns his top target from the 2021 spring campaign, receiver Xavier Gagnepain.
2021 spring record: 4-2
Coach: Mike Brasile
Worth noting: The Blue Streaks put together a winning record for the first time since 2009 and ended a long losing streak against rival Woodstock North -- topping the Thunder twice. But they also lose 17 players from that team. Quarterback Liam Mickle and offensive lineman Gavin Loiselle both are back for their senior years. Brandon Carroll and Jakob Remot both started on the line as sophomores and are back this year, while Kaden Hunter and Caden Monti will see more time as targets for Mickle.
2021 spring record: 2-3
Coach: Jeff Schroeder
Worth noting: The Thunder had to fight through both injury and quarantine issues during the spring, finishing up 2-3 -- though two of those losses were to Woodstock. Henry Goetz was a force for the Thunder at both linebacker and running back as a junior last season. Goetz returns in the backfield along with junior quarterback Jay Zinnen. Justin VanAcker had a solid year on both the defensive line and at tight end as well. Thunder coach Jeff Schroeder may look to use him as a slot receiver. Tyler Long, Sam Zalas and Riley Young all return on the offensive line. "We feel like we'll match up a lot better and hope to make a return to the playoffs after missing by a game in 2019," Schroeder said. "I think we can do it. We have real hardworking, coachable kids."
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
Sean Whitefield, QB/DB, LaSalle-Peru: Whitefield played everywhere on offense last season but will take over full-time at quarterback. He threw for 55 yards and a score and ran for 68 yards and another in his lone start under center.
Xavier Gagnepain, WR, Sycamore: Gagnepain had 20 receptions for 418 yards and four scores, plus returned a kick for a touchdown and averaged 43.5 yards per return.
Corey Phillips, RB, Kaneland: He ran for more than 100 yards per game, finishing with 693 yards and eight scores. He also had 90 yards on three catches and another touchdown.
Zach Romak, QB, Morris: Romak threw for 900 yards in just five games last season, he'll look to keep up that productivity in the shift to the somewhat new conference.
Liam Mickle, QB, Woodstock: Mickle threw for 1,387 yards and 12 touchdowns in a breakout spring season.
FIVE CAN'T MISS MATCHUPS
Week 3 -- Sycamore at Kaneland: The Spartans won the last two in the series and will look to continue their in-conference dominance, while Kaneland will be looking to make a statement with a win.
Week 4 -- Morris at Woodstock: The two most proficient quarterbacks in the league meet up in this midseason showdown just two weeks into the conference season in a battle between two teams with not a lot of history.
Week 5 -- LaSalle-Peru at Sycamore: Both teams were undefeated last year, as obviously they didn't get the chance to play each other in the short season. It's too late to count it as a spring 2021 title game, but it could do a lot for determining the fall 2021 champ. Sycamore won the 2019 contest, 45-0.
Week 8 -- LaSalle-Peru at Morris: Morris can re-establish itself as a dominant home team with this late-season game. They dropped two home games last year but can erase all that with a statement win here. Not to mention to close the year Morris hosts Sycamore in what could be more than a statement game depending on how the season shakes out.
Week 9 -- Woodstock at Woodstock North: The Blue Streaks beat the Thunder twice last year. A loss this time around and Woodstock North will have to wait longer than a couple months to get another shot at revenge.
•Kevin Chlum, Rob Oesterle, JT Pedelty and Alex Kantecki of Shaw Media contributed to this report.