2022 season preview: Scouting the Illinois Central Eight
2021 record: 6-4
Coach: Francis Loughran
Worth noting: Loughran's first season as head coach was another winning one for the powerhouse Coalers, who bring back a lot of key pieces from last fall's playoff team, including QB Braden Reilly (515 yards, 9 TDs passing), RB/WR/DB Cason Headley (209 yards rushing), WR/DBs Jim Feeney and Derek Carlson, TE/DE Braiden Young and OL/DLs Tyler Hennings, Michael Gonzalez (10 TFLs), Collin Dames and Drake Dearth (5 TFLs). … In addition to Headley and Dearth, the stable of running backs will include varsity newcomers Gavin Carpenter, Austin Davy, Tanner Phillips and promising sophomore Landon Benson. Replacing last year's run-game production is one of Loughran's top priorities. … With five starters returning to a tough defense and depth up across the board, expect another winning season in Coaler Country.
2021 record: 2-7
Coach: Mike Mosier
Worth noting: A member of the Herscher coaching staff for the past seven season, Mosier takes over a Tigers program that is coming off back-to-back losing seasons after a stretch of five straight playoff berths. … The new head coach has some strong returning pieces to work with, namely QB Brock Wenzelman, TE/LB Travis Jones, RB/LB Clay Schultz and OL/DL Jackson Fritz. … Newcomers such as LB Kenneth Royal and WR Aidan Morical also figure heavily into Mosier's plans. … "Our strong suit right now will be defense. They look really good," Mosier said, adding that his biggest concern coming into the season is getting three new starters on the offensive line up to speed, "but they've already shown a lot of improvement."
2021 record: 7-4
Coach: Paul Parpet
Worth noting: The Lions made their third straight trip to the Class 3A playoffs last fall and their fourth postseason appearance in Parpet's seven seasons at the helm. … Of concern, the team did lose a lot of last year's performers to graduation, although there are some strong blocks from which to build, namely OL/DL Chris Farrell, OL/LB Joe Raineri and RB/DB Dominic Nigro. All three are three-year starters for Lisle. … As far as his expectations, Parpet said simply, "Lisle expects to be a very competitive team this year."
2021 record: 2-7
Coach: RJ Haines
Worth noting: The Panthers boast depth at the skill positions and overall talent but are largely young and inexperienced and "will need to grow up fast at a lot of positions," Haines said. … Where they're not inexperienced is at the positions manned by all-conference OL/DL Damian Alsup and WR/DB Josh Carne -- both two-way starters a year ago. … Joining them as key newcomers are WR/DBs Sevin Keigher, Porter Chandler and Aidan Dotson as well as new QB Niko Akiyama. … Before last year, Manteno had qualified for the Class 4A playoffs nine of the previous 10 years the IHSA conducted a postseason.
2021 record: 5-5
Coach: Apostolos Tsiamas
Worth noting: The Blue Devils made their second straight playoff trip in 2021 and third in Tsiamas' six seasons with a postseason. … A senior-heavy group has Peotone thinking playoffs again this fall, with leading returners FB/LB Dawson Piper, TE/DE David Reidy, RB/CB Dylan Sroka and OL/DL Alex Cardenas. … Some new names to keep an eye on include QB James Kuypers, RB/LB Chase Rivera and WR/CB Rorey Hart. … Mental toughness is another aspect Tsiamas is hoping is improved by having a roster full of senior leaders. "I didn't like the way we competed at times last year, especially in games when we were the underdogs," he said. "Our mental makeup last year wasn't great, and that needs to be addressed going into this year."
2021 record: 10-2
Coach: Gavin Johnston
Worth noting: Johnston summed it up best when he said, "We will not be able to sneak up on anyone this year" after a breakthrough fall 2021 season that saw the Comets make the Class 3A quarterfinals and suffer their two losses by a combined 11 points to a pair of eventual state champions. … Returning stars from that team include OL/DL Kody Marschner (two-time all-stater), RB/LB Jace Christian (14 TDs, team's leading tackler), QB Jake McPherson (847 yards and 8 TDs rushing; 1,250 yards and 22 TDs passing), RB/DB Josh Bohac (5 INTs), WR/LB Brandon Moorman (second-leading tackler, 309 receiving yards) and OL/DL Gunnar Berg (a two-time All-ICE performer), plus back-from-injury WR/DB Lucas Foote (6 TDs in four quarters played last season). … There are some key parts of last year's team to replace, but the Comets have enough back to challenge for the ICE Conference title and more.
2021 record: 3-6
Coach: Kyle Tutt
Worth noting: The Bulldogs lost some key pieces to graduation and another this preseason when WR/LB Jake Luckey was likely lost for the season during 7-on-7s. Still, there are some key contributors back after 2021s 3-0 start, including lightning-fast RB/DB Aneefy Ford, QB/LB Christian Benning, OL/DL leader Sabby Nieto, WR/DB Jeremiah Brown, OL/DLs Anthony Dominic and Manual Villalobos, and WR/DB/K Parker Phillis. … Players such as Isaiah Brown, Matt Williamson, Anthony Mohr and a transfer from neighboring Ottawa, DJ White, also are expected to contribute heavily as Tutt -- a former state championship QB -- opens up the playbook with Benning now an experienced junior on the verge of breaking the school's career passing yardage record. … Being physical and improving up front "week in and week out," Tutt said, likely will decide the Bulldogs' fate.
2021 record: 14-0
Coach: Jeff Reents
Worth noting: The ICE champions also were the IHSA's Class 2A state champions, the second state title claimed by the Wildcats in Reents' 28-year, 251-61 career. … That was a senior-heavy group -- especially at the skill positions -- meaning getting this year's team up to speed will be Job No. 1. Reents, heading into the season, likes what he has seen in that regard. "The players have done a great job in our offseason program," he said. "I feel our overall strength and speed are where we need it to be going into the season, and we do have some good experience back on the O-line, so we are hoping that helps with running the ball." … Back to anchor that line are Kade Hopwood and Brody Benson. Other key returners include WB/DB Colin James (1,361 yards and 18 TDs rushing), QB/DB Ryder Meents (after taking over behind center Week 4 of last season), RB/LB Brendan Moran (83 tackles) and DL Hunter Hays (6 TFLs). … Week 6s visit to Reed-Custer looks likely to be the de facto ICE title game.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
• Kody Marschner, Reed-Custer, sr., OL/DL: When a lineman appears in almost every coach's list of top players in a conference, you know he's special. Marschner is indeed a dominating force on both sides of the ball for a Comets team with big aspirations for the season ahead.
• Colin James, Wilmington, sr., WB/DB: The focal point of a powerful Wildcats rushing attack with a proven offensive line back, there's every reason to suspect James may put up even better numbers than last season's 1,361 yards and 18 touchdowns carrying the ball.
• Braden Reilly, Coal City, sr., QB: The Coalers aren't known for throwing the football, but Reilly was good last season when they did, throwing for nine touchdowns and perhaps more importantly running an efficient, ball-control offense for a team that by and large played low-scoring affairs.
• Aneefy Ford, Streator, sr., RB/DB: The Streator speedster finished his junior season standing on Class 2A's medal podium for the 100-meter dash at state. Faster and more confident than last year, expect to see Ford out of the backfield more to accumulate more touches in the Bulldogs' offense.
• Jake McPherson, Reed-Custer, sr., QB: The Comets' dual-threat quarterback took his game to another level last fall, rushing for 847 yards and eight touchdowns while also completing 68% of his passes for 1,250 yards and 22 touchdowns with only three interceptions.
FIVE CAN'T-MISS MATCHUPS
Week 3 - Coal City at Wilmington, 7 p.m., Sept. 9: The opening week of the ICE Conference slate features what should be a good one between two of the league's perennial powerhouses. Last year's battle was a 10-7 victory for eventual Class 2A state champion Wildcats.
Week 5 -- Coal City at Lisle, 7 p.m., Sept. 23: Expect the Coalers and Lions to be in the conference title hunt again this year, with this midseason matchup looking key to the final standings. Coal City won last year, 24-12.
Week 6 -- Wilmington at Reed-Custer, 7 p.m., Sept. 30: This looks likely to be a heavyweight title fight for the ICE crown. That's exactly what it was last fall, and it lived up to the hype with Wilmington eking out a 21-14 triumph.
Week 6 - Peotone at Streator, 7 p.m., Sept. 30: While all eyes will be on the game in Braidwood, save a peek for this matchup of teams that could find themselves on the playoff bubble and a rematch of a thriller last season won, 26-20, by the Blue Devils.
Week 9 - Lisle at Peotone, 7 p.m., Oct. 21: This could be a win-or-go-home scenario for one or both teams, although more likely at least one of them will be playing for the opportunity to host a first-round postseason game.