Scouting the 2021 fall football season in the Southwest Prairie Conference
2021 spring record: 0-6
Coach: Thomas Hart (1st season)
Worth noting: Hart arrives from Plainfield East, where he was an assistant coach with the Bengals, and will be the fourth different program head for the Steelmen in the last four seasons. Hart will try to build a foundation for a program that has lacked consistency and hasn't won more than three games in a season since 2003 (when the program was the combined efforts of Joliet Central and Joliet West).
2021 spring record: 3-3
Coach: Bill Lech (13-18 in four seasons at Joliet West; 64-41 overall in 11 seasons)
Worth noting: Joliet West has the makings of being an exciting team but will have to solve some experience issues in the trenches to achieve its goals. Quarterback Skylar Crudup gives the Tigers a talented pass-run threat under center, while Ena Dorcoo gives the Tigers an explosive weapon to deploy in numerous roles. But Lech will likely lean on his defense, especially early, to keep Joliet West in the thick of things. Linebacker Bryan McCoy is drawing Division I interest and it's easy to see why. The Tigers also have some experienced players in the secondary to lean on in Jerry Richards and Bryan Satterwhite. The key for Joliet West will be surviving the four-game stretch of nonconference games without too much damage before entering divisional play.
2021 spring record: 3-3
Coach: Robert Keane (1st season)
Worth noting: Yet another team going through a transition at the head coaching position in this conference, but Keane previously served under former head coach Jon Periero, who left the post to become the athletic director at Joliet Central, so Keane knows the lay of the land. The Wildcats had a bit of a breakout in the spring season, finishing 3-3. The program hadn't had a record of .500 or above at the conclusion of a regular season since 2012. Offensively, Plainfield Central should be anchored by the play of running back Aaron Larkins Jr., who had a breakout junior campaign and would have easily surpassed 1,000 yards rushing had the season been full term.
2021 spring record: 2-3
Coach: Brad Kunz (9-11 in three seasons at Plainfield East; 57-43 overall in 11 seasons)
Worth noting: Few teams approached the spring season with as much of a freewheeling attitude as the Bengals did. There were multiple reasons for that, but their efforts netted the Bengals one of the state's more potent offenses in both yardage and points. Some of those components are gone to graduation, but a few remain, including explosive wide receiver Michael Morgan. Two-way junior lineman Michael Jimmar is drawing interest from several Power 5 schools. If the Bengals can find pieces on the offensive line to go along with Jimmar and protect new quarterback Quinn Callaghan, they could have another electric offense.
2021 spring record: 3-1
Coach: Bill Bicker (23-19 in five seasons)
Worth noting: The Cougars lost the last two games of the spring season to quarantine and then a large number on both sides of the football departed the program via graduation. But it would be a fool's errand to count the Cougars out. The biggest challenge will likely be finding a way to replenish both trenches, an area that the Cougars usually excel. Expect the offense to be engineered by sensational junior Brian Stanton, who was an absolute beast for Plainfield South in the spring. Defensively, just three starters return for a unit that typically molds the Cougars' identity. Junior safety Jake Lee will be asked to step into a leadership role.
2021 spring record: 2-3
Coach: Justin Trovato (3-11 in two seasons)
Worth noting: Program numbers continue to be an issue, but even with those problems, the Spartans appeared to be on the verge of turning a corner with a solid effort early in the spring season as they won two of their first three contests. But the back half of the season saw the same issues complicate Romeoville's run to the finish. Things still haven't improved much on the numbers front, but Trovato is confident those that have made a commitment to the program will help build a foundation. Running back Jahmari Christian will be a big part of what happens in regards to Romeoville's offensive success, but the defense will very much be a work in progress.
2021 spring record: 4-2
Coach: Matt Harding (4-2 in one season)
Worth noting: The Indians will lean heavily on a very experienced offensive line anchored by four returners, including seniors Jake Fuhrmann and Sean Williamson. Minooka has some weapons on the outside in NIU-bound wide receiver Malik Armstrong and his running partner Trevor Hudak. Both are capable of breaking things wide open at any time. Defensively, the Indians have the makings of a strong front seven with capable returners at each of the two first levels, but a ball hawking secondary from last year does need to be entirely rebuilt. Minooka will have a measuring-stick game right out of the box. The Indians host Bolingbrook and should have weekly challenges when the West Division play takes over the schedule.
2021 spring record: 5-1
Coach: Brian Cooney (109-21 in 12 seasons)
Worth noting: The Panthers returned to the top of the heap in the SPC last spring after a one-year interruption -- and there is no reason to think they won't be right back in the hunt this fall. Oswego is well-stocked with returning skill-position players, led by 6-foot-6 junior tight end Deacon Tonielli, a major Division I prospect. Mark Melton and Jacob Sergen were part of a backfield-by-committee last year and should get plenty of touches for an offense that prioritizes pounding it on the ground. Senior Julian Toma and junior Cruz Ibarra were both thrust into action at quarterback last spring because of injury, but that extra experience would figure to pay dividends. Oswego's biggest question appears to be up front, where four of five offensive linemen and two talented defensive ends graduated. Oswego lost the lion's share of its front seven defensively, but talented senior Cameron Grays is back in the secondary. The Panthers will get nonconference measuring sticks right off the bat with Neuqua Valley and Batavia.
2021 spring record: 2-4
Coach: Tyson LeBlanc (50-36 in nine seasons)
Worth noting: The Wolves' first crosstown win highlighted an otherwise disappointing spring, Oswego East's first losing season since 2014 -- but the talent is there for a resurgence. It starts with Illinois recruit Jared Badie, a freak athlete at outside linebacker who could also moonlight offensively this fall. Oswego East traditionally has put its best athletes on the defensive side, but there is plenty of talent on this offense. Speedy Darquel Sanders and physical junior Oshobi Odior, who LeBlanc said "could start anywhere" if needed return in the backfield. Oswego East received a welcome addition when junior quarterback Tre Jones moved back to his home district from Montini. Jones already holds an offer from Arizona State. A key question is how all the pieces fit together. Oswego East's junior class has only lost one game in high school, and that was last year with five players up on varsity. Owen Valek is rated the No. 1 kicker in Illinois by Kohl's Kicking.
2021 spring record: 3-3
Coach: Anthony Imbordino (13-9 in three seasons)
Worth noting: There will be a sense of familiarity on the offensive side as the Tigers return nine starters, including their entire offensive line, from the spring season. Bruising runner Jared Gumila, who was sidelined for part of the spring with an injury, should be the leading benefactor of that experienced line's return. The Tigers defense will feature a number of new faces, however, but it does have some promising players in linebackers Anthony Barbero and Colin Day to build around. It wouldn't be surprising to see Plainfield North go with a ground-based attack to acclimate a new quarterback to the offensive attack, which would also give the defense some time to adjust to all of the new performers.
2021 spring record: 1-4
Coach: Nate Eimer (45-46 in 10 seasons)
Worth noting: The Blackhawks have received a rather rude introduction to the SPC, going a combined 3-11 the last two seasons after making four straight playoff appearances. Eimer is hopeful West Aurora can turn things around with depth. He characterized this as the deepest team he has coached at all positions. Eight starters return on offense, seven on defense. Players to watch include senior wide receiver Chris Stinson, senior linebacker Tim Hancock, senior two-way lineman -- and wrestling standout -- Jordan Lishman, junior quarterback Gino Martino and senior defensive back/receiver Savion Little. Of Martino, Eimer said "more recruiting lists should be talking about this young man." Questions remaining to be answered, including do the Blackhawks have enough playmakers that can run away from people, and how much have they improved up front -- and, notably, just how good will the SPC West be? "I think this team I am coaching has the chance be as good as [the 9-2 team in 2018]," Eimer said, "but our side of our conference might be one of the best as a group of six there is out there."
2021 spring record: 4-2
Coach: Dan McGuire (28-27 in six seasons)
Worth noting: The Foxes have acquitted themselves quite well in the SPC so far, going 12-5 over two seasons. A ton of talent returns from what was a young defense, including defensive backs Blake Kersting, Malachi Jones and Andrew Garton and linemen Andrew Laurich and Jake Davies. Yorkville's strength will be on both lines. Sam Tholen started at center as a sophomore. Kendrew Smith returns from injury and Kyle Clabough, who sat out his junior year to focus on track and field where he won a state shot put championship, also is back in the fold. The skill positions collectively have promise, but are inexperienced. Returning skill-position players offensively include receiver John Swarn and running back Deajeion Lewis. Nate Kraus at quarterback provides a different dimension from the drop-back passers Yorkville had the last two seasons.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
Jared Badie, linebacker, Oswego East: Illinois recruit looks the part with a chiseled 6-foot-5, 218-pound frame and explosive 4.49 40 speed. Badie, now in his third season as a varsity starter, had 36 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and three sacks as a junior. A wild card is how much Oswego East utilizes his superior athleticism offensively.
Bryan McCoy, linebacker, Joliet West: McCoy cuts an imposing figure in the heart of the Tigers defense and he should be a huge focal point of opposing offensive lines, who will fear his ability to absolute demolish any plans they may have to move the football.
Malik Armstrong, wide receiver/defensive back, Minooka: According to his coach, the expectation will be that Armstrong won't leave the field much as "when you have an athlete like that, you want to use him as much as possible." The NIU-bound Armstrong will add work at defensive back, while his ability to stretch the defense from the slot remains unchanged.
Brian Stanton, running back, Plainfield South: Just a sophomore in the spring, the Cougars didn't put a heavy workload on the explosive youngster. But some of that may have been because he made a ton of huge plays that ended in touchdowns when he did see the football. Look for the workload to increase now and the eye-popping numbers will likely follow.
Deacon Tonielli, tight end/receiver, Oswego: The 6-foot-6, 215-pound junior emerged as a matchup nightmare in the spring with 25 catches, his best game coming in Oswego's biggest at Minooka. Now he's clearly the Panthers' go-to receiver outside. Tonielli already holds a Division I scholarship offer from Tennessee. Look for Tonielli, also a basketball starter, to expand his game both as a pass-catcher and blocker in a full season.
FIVE CAN'T MISS MATCHUPS
Week 2: Batavia at Oswego: With the Panthers not locked into playing SPC crossovers the first two weeks anymore, it freed up the scheduling for this dynamite matchup with DuKane Conference powerhouse Batavia. It can only hope to live up their last two meetings, Oswego's 40-38 win in 2014 and Batavia's 36-28 victory in 2015. Both came down to the last minute.
Week 4: Plainfield North at Plainfield South: Although these two teams are not in the same division, the fierce rivalry remains. It could turn out to be a pivotal game for each squad's playoff hopes as both have rigorous nondivision schedules and North will have more hurdles to clear once it gets into divisional play.
Week 5: Minooka at Oswego: This has absolutely emerged as the Southwest Prairie's matchup to watch on a year-to-year basis. Minooka finally ended Oswego's lengthy reign with a win in 2019. Oswego avenged that loss in the spring and handed the Indians their only loss.
Week 7: Joliet West at Plainfield East: Both teams fancy themselves as East Division title contenders. This game might play a major factor in how that race shakes out. Even if the divisional race isn't in play, both of these teams play a tough enough nondivision schedule that it might be a situation where an at-large playoff bid might be riding on the outcome.
Week 8: Oswego East at Oswego: The Wolves finally broke their drought in the crosstown rivalry in the spring. Their 14-7 win over Oswego was their first in the 16-year Oswego crosstown series. Like that one, meetings between these two of recent vintage are usually close and low-scoring -- although both teams this year have enough talent offensively to make it an outlier. With the matchup this late in the season, it could very well prove pivotal in the SPC West race and hold playoff implications.