2021 fall preview: Scouting the Illinois Central Eight
2021 spring record: 4-1
Coach: Francis Loughran
Worth noting: Loughran -- the team's defensive coordinator and a 2001 Coal City graduate -- takes over a powerhouse Coalers program that has made the playoffs 30 of the previous 33 seasons (the playoff-less spring season excluded). Despite losing a lot of the offensive line and most of the rushing yards from the spring to graduation, the Coalers return proven commodities such as seniors RB/LB Ashton Harvey, RB/LB Nick Seplak, RB/LB Brady Best, OL/DL Nick Latta, TE/DE Aydan Murphey and WR/CB Zach Finch. QB Braden Reilly, WR/DB Dylan Carlson Jr., OL/LB Tyler Hennings, RB/DB Cason Headley and RB/DL Drake Dearth are newcomers worth watching, especially on the defensive side where Coal City always seems to excel. The Coalers expect to reload and return to the playoffs, and there's no reason not to suspect they will.
2021 spring record: 2-3
Coach: Dan Wetzel
Worth noting: The Tigers find themselves in a bit of a numbers crunch with a varsity roster that will likely contain less than 20 upperclassmen. Those that are back with experience will be asked to do a lot, with several two-way performers dotting the Herscher lineup. Cody Lunsford saw a fair amount of time in the backfield for the Tigers last season and will likely be the lead runner in an offense that might be a little more ground-based as it breaks in a new quarterback: Brock Wenzelman. Defensively, there are a few more pieces to fall back on. Lunsford figures into the mix, while juniors Clay Schultz and Travis Jones should also play substantial roles.
2021 spring record: 3-2
Coach: Paul Parpet
Worth noting: The Lions had two consecutive Class 3A playoff appearances before COVID-19 wiped out the 2020 fall season, and appear poised to return again with a handful of proven performers returning to the skill positions. Those include dual-threat QB Tyrese Watson, two-way standout RB/LB Gabe Quinones, WR/DB Dominic Nigro and explosive RB/DB/KR Cole Campbell, a threat to score anytime he gets the ball. Late-season matchups with Manteno and Peotone in Weeks 8 and 9, respectively, look likely to determine whether Lisle can make it three straight trips to Week 10.
2021 spring record: 2-3
Coach: R.J. Haines
Worth noting: The Panthers might look a little different this season as its high-powered passing attack doesn't have anyone quite ready to produce at the levels of graduated quarterback Caleb Borkenhagen. As such, the Panthers will probably go to the ground game a little bit more than one has come to expect from Manteno. Regardless of what path the offense takes, wide receiver Jack Prindeville will play a substantial role and also be an anchor on defense from a cornerback position. The Panthers will also lean heavily on some promising underclassmen to fill some of the voids in the lineup.
2021 spring record: 3-2
Coach: Apostolos Tsiamas
Worth noting: The spring's inexperience is now the fall's experience, something the Blue Devils will be counting on to keep their recent run of success (qualifiers for two of the past three postseasons) going. Heading a list of many returnees is dynamic QB/RB/LB TJ Chenoweth, who after earning all-conference honors at running back last season is a candidate to move behind center to replace 2021 graduate Tristan Weglarz. Tsiamas, in fact, mentions Peotone's passing game and special teams as areas where he's hoping to see improvement, offsetting that with the team strength: "several returners from last year that understand our system and how we want to play a game." Other key returners include game-changing TE/DL Tyler Hendricker; linemen Austin Massat, Alex Renwick, Seth Leonard and Zak Kristina; TE/LBs Joel Lee and Hunter Jellema; and RB/LBs/DBs Dawson Piper, Ryan Moe and Derek Knauer.
2021 spring record: 1-4
Coach: Gavin Johnston
Worth noting: The Comets continue their rebuild under Johnston -- now in his third season -- with the goal of returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2009. They'll have a head start coming into the season in that regard, with 10 offensive and nine defensive starters back, including cornerstone All-IC8 performers Kody Marschner (OL/DL), Jace Christian (RB/LB), Jacob Pfeiffer (OL/LB) and Gunnar Berg (OL/DL). That offensive line anchored by Berg and Marschner brings back four starters, and added depth from the junior class at the skill positions "has created a very competitive environment at camp this summer," Johnston said. Continuing the defensive improvement seen in recent years will be the key to the Comets turning the corner.
2021 spring record: 0-5
Coach: Kyle Tutt
Worth noting: The Bulldogs showed glimpses in the spring of what former state champion quarterback Tutt wants to build in Streator. Now after their first "regular" offseason together, Tutt and his team will look to make giant strides toward the Bulldogs' sixth playoff appearance in school history. The skill positions look strong, with returners such as RB/LB Cade Stevens, RB/DB Darryl Gullens, WR/DB Aneefy Ford and former QB turned WR/LB Tyler Luckey leading the way to provide multiple playmaking options for sophomore QB/LB Christian Benning, who's coming off an impressive freshman campaign. How well the defense tackles and an offensive line anchored by Walker McClellan, Manny Villalobos and Anthony Dominic protects will decide how much Streator improves. "Being a better blocking and tackling team is one of our (focuses) this year," Tutt said. "That's one of the things we talk about on the daily."
2021 spring record: 5-0
Coach: Jeff Reents
Worth noting: Reents took over the Wildcats program in 1994, and after a 3-6 debut season has led Wilmington to a winning record every year since, including an unblemished spring campaign a few short months ago. Great team defense and a nearly unstoppable running game have been the cornerstones upon which those wins were built, and this fall promises more of the same with the Wildcats returning OL/DL anchor Nick Sanford and All-IC8 RB/LB Jake Friddle in addition to all-state K (as well as TE/LB) Alan Richards. "I like our team speed on defense," Reents said. "We have a good weapon in Alan Richards as a kicker, and offensively we do have some experience in key spots." Getting a junior class which missed out on a lot of on-the-field growth due to the pandemic up to speed as upperclassmen is a concern of Reents', but the veteran coach reports progress was made in that regard over the summer. RB/DB Ryan Banas and RB/LB Karsen Hansen are newcomers to keep an eye on.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
Tyler Hendricker, sr., TE/DL, Peotone: A physical specimen and great athlete, the 6-4 Hendricker creates chaos for both opposing offenses and defenses.
Cody Lunsford, sr., RB/DL, Herscher: Lunsford is one of the more experienced Tigers on a roster that doesn't have much of that, so he'll likely be asked to shoulder a much heavier load running the football as well as contributing on the defensive side of the ball.
Ashton Harvey, sr., RB/LB, Coal City: A state-ranked wrestler and last year's No. 2 running back behind all-everything rusher Asa Cooper, Harvey looks likely to take on the lead role in what is usually a balanced but powerful Coalers backfield.
Tyler Luckey, sr., WR/LB, Streator: The Bulldogs quarterback last season is moving to a receiving role where he can get the ball in space and use his impressive athleticism to do damage outside the tackles.
Jake Friddle, sr., RB/LB, Wilmington: In the five-game spring season, Friddle earned All-IC8 honors by rushing for 459 yards and five touchdowns, also making an impact on the defensive side. Look for more of the same.
FIVE CAN'T-MISS MATCHUPS
Week 3 -- Wilmington at Coal City: The Illinois Central Eight is getting right to it with what quite possibly will turn out to be its championship game. The Wildcats won a thriller, 24-21, in their much-anticipated spring meeting.
Week 3 -- Manteno at Peotone: Another intriguing matchup on the opening Friday night of league play, this rivalry has endured multiple conference changes just fine. The Panthers and Blue Devils have split their last six meetings.
Week 7 -- Reed-Custer at Streator: It's not hard to imagine this one being a key game for two programs looking to turn the corner on rebuilds in a season where both return the majority of their starters from the spring. They did not meet during the COVID-shortened spring campaign.
Week 9 -- Peotone at Lisle: This has the potential to be a make-or-break contest for both teams' postseason hopes, or at the very least propel one of them to a possible home playoff game. Lisle shut the Blue Devils out in their spring meeting, 24-0.
Week 9 -- Wilmington at Manteno: Both perennial playoff teams the past decade, this regular-season finale should be a good primer for things to come in the postseason for at least one and, if recent history tells us anything, quite possibly both squads.