High School: Preseason previews
2. Warren: The Blue Devils lost to Simeon by eight points in the Pontiac holiday tournament championship and by nine points in the state championship game. They could very well meet Simeon in both places again this season. Warren returns three starters -- Western Michigan recruit Darius Paul, Toledo recruit Nathan Boothe and senior guard JoVaughn Gaines -- from that team. They’ll also look to Jameris Smith, Jon Geske and Mitch Munda. This will be coach Chuck Ramsey’s final season.
3. Whitney Young: There aren’t even many college teams in the country that have as much size and skill in the front court as the Dolphins do. Six-foot-11 center Jahlil Okafor is ranked No. 3 in the Class of 2014. Paul White, who is a 6-8 swingman, is ranked No. 17 in the Class of 2014. Tommy Hamilton Jr., who is 6-9, is ranked No. 23 in the Class of 2013. There’s also 6-8 Jermaine Morgan, who is a Colorado State recruit. The big question for Whitney Young is who will bring the ball up the court. If the Dolphins can figure out their backcourt, they should be among the state’s and nation’s best teams.
4. Proviso East: First-year coach Donnie Boyce has plenty to work with this season. The Pirates return senior point guard Keith Carter, who recently committed to Saint Louis, junior guard Sterling Brown, who is becoming a national recruit, senior forward Trashaun Carroll and juniors Paris Lee, Paris Burns and Mike Nicholas.
5. Downers Grove South: The Mustangs will possess one of the state’s top backcourts with 6-2 senior Jamall Millison and 6-3 senior Jerron Wilbut. Wilbut is considered one of the top players in the state’s Class of 2012. Downers Grove South also returns 6-5 forward Kevin Honn, a two-year starter. The question for the Mustangs will be rebounding and interior defense.
6. Curie: The Condors have the pieces to compete for the Public League and state championship. They’re as deep as anyone and will be led by 6-8 sophomore Cliff Alexander, who is ranked No. 13 in the country. Transfer Malcolm Hill-Bey should be an asset in the backcourt with the loss of Greg Travis to graduation.
7. De La Salle: The Meteors could be a state contender if everything clicks for them. They have some of the state’s most highly-ranked players, but the question is whether those players can adjust to bigger roles this season with the graduation of Dre Henley and Mike Shaw. De La Salle will be depending on 6-8 Gavin Schilling, 6-7 Alex Foster and 6-4 Alvin Ellis.
8. Homewood-Flossmoor: The Vikings may be the most experienced team in the state -- it seems Tim Williams, a 6-8 forward, and 6-5 Delvon Rencher have been around forever. Homewood-Flossmoor also returns Antonio Bishop, Marius Hill, Tyrone Sherman and Lamar Wofford-Humphrey. Will this be the season they finally take that next step?
9. St. Rita: This looks to be the year coach Gary DeCesare turns St. Rita’s program completely around. After going 12-14 last season, the Mustangs return 6-7 senior forward AJ Avery, a Western Michigan recruit, 6-2 guard Tony Hicks, a Penn recruit, senior point guard Cullen Foulks, sophomore forward Victor Law and sophomore guard Dominique Matthews. There also will be a couple freshmen who will contribute immediately. St. Rita will be the team to beat in the Catholic League.
10. Farragut: The Admirals should be among the best teams in Chicago again. Six-foot-7 forward Rashaun Stimage is a jack of all trades and is among the state’s best seniors. Senior twins Deonte and Alante Terrell are eligible this season after trasferring and sitting out last year. Both should be among the team’s major contributors this season. Returning guard Lavell Boyd and senior John Carter, a transfer from Oak Park, should bring stability to the backcourt.
11. Andrew: The Thunderbolts are ready to emerge as one of the area’s best this season. They’ll be led by 6-5 forward Jubril Adekoya, who does a bit of everything for them. Jawad Adekoya and Glorinda Lisha are also key returnees.
12. Hyde Park: The Thunderbirds could be among the elite group of teams if all their transfers are eligible. They have eight transfers, including former Bogan forward Moshawn Thomas. Regardless of whether everyone is eligible, Hyde Park should still be pretty good. Point guard Kyle Davis is among the state’s best juniors.
13. New Trier: The Trevians have plenty of talent and experience back this season. Connor Boehm, a 6-7 Dartmouth recruit, and 6-4 guard Austin Angel will be the team’s go-to players. They also return David Bragiel, Reid Bermnan and Jordan Thomas.
14. Crane: Chris Head takes over a talented group this season at Crane. The Cougars are headed by Willie Connor, who can fill up the basket, and Kalen Shane. They’ve also added Markee Williams, who was formerly at Morgan Park.
15. Crete-Monee: Former legendary Hillcrest coach Tom Cappel is now at Crete-Monee. He’ll be led by Illinois recruit and senior point guard Michael Orris. Marvie Keith, a 3-pointer shooter, and LaQuan Treadwell, a big-time football recruit, should also contribute.
16. Morgan Park: The Mustangs are handing the reins off to junior guard Billy Garrett Jr. after the graduation of Wayne Blackshear. While Garrett Jr. will be a point guard at the next level, he’s proven he can be a big-time scorer and passer at the high school level. He’ll be assisted by 6-9 center Xzavier Taylor, 6-5 forward Adrian Jefferies, 6-2 guard Terrance Quinn and 6-3 Dominique Lee and a number of freshman and sophomore newcomers.
17. St. Joseph: The Chargers endured a rare losing season under coach Gene Pingatore last season. That shouldn’t be the case again this year. They’ll be led by 6-1 Reggie Johnson, 6-8 junior A.J. Patty, 6-5 sophomore Karriem Simmons and 6-4 sophomore Paul Turner.
18. Bloom: The Blazing Trojans should be able to build on last year’s 16 wins with the talent they have returning. They’ll be led by three-year starter Donald Moore, who led them in scoring and assists last season. He’ll have help from LeJavius Johnson, Henry Hicks, Johnny Griffin, Dejahown Freeman and Nhyree Mitchell.
19. Oak Park: The Huskies had a rough season a year ago, but should be one of the area’s best teams this year. They have seven returnees, a group led by Bradley recruit and senior guard Ka’Darryl Bell, who averaged 15 points last year. Senior forward Gave Levin, who averaged 11 points and nine rebounds, senior forward Alex Nesnidal and junior guard Jakari Cammon also return.
20. Waukegan: The Bulldogs will rely heavily on their guards this season. Akeem Springs, a 6-4 combo guard, averaged 19 points and nine rebounds last season. Waukegan also returns Devonte Taylor, Jordan Johnson and Dijon Ross. Sophomore power forward Jerome Davis could make an impact this season.
2. Whitney Young: The Dolphins haven’t been able to get past Bolingbrook the past three seasons. Last year’s Class 4A semifinal game was an instant classic with Bolingbrook pulling out a 50-49 win. They’ll be the favorites to get another shot at the defending champs. Whitney Young will be led by its backcourt of Linnae Harper, one of the country’s top juniors, and Janee Thompson, a nationally-ranked senior and Kentucky recruit. Whitney Young will also look to sophomores Khaalia Hillsman and Taylor Brame and seniors Tessa Haldes and Alexis Lloyd.
3. Trinity: The Blazers are looking to make that jump into the state’s elite teams this season and appear to have the talent and experience to do so. They went 29-4 last season and return DePaul recruit and all-area selection Megan Podkowa, who averaged 17 points and nine rebounds last season, junior guard Taylor Nazon, who averaged 11 points, senior guard Alyssa Dengler, junior forward Shannon McGinnis and senior center Vickie Harris. Lauren Prochaska and Mikayla Leyden should also contribute.
4. Maine South: The Hawks pulled off one of last season’s biggest upsets when they knocked off Whitney Young in the Class 4A third-place game. Whitney Young may not have been as motivated after losing in the semifinals to Bolingbrook, but it still was a big win for Maine South and could propel it this season. The Hawks return all five starters and their top six players from last year’s team. Senior guard Michelle Maher, who has signed with Western Illinois, and junior forward Jacqui Grant, who has an offer from DePaul, both averaged around 12 points last season.
5. Marist: The RedHawks look to be a state contender this season with all five starters back from last year’s squad that went 27-6 and lost to Marian Catholic in a Class 4A sectional championship game. Among Marist’s returnees is junior guard JeTaun Rouse, who was the lone sophomore on last year’s ESPNChicago.com all-area team. The other returning starters are seniors Randyll Butler, a Colgate recruit, and Asianna Bey, a Memphis recruit, and juniors Leah Bolton and Claire Ryan. All five starters will likely play Division I basketball.
6. Hillcrest: The Hawks have finished second in Class 3A the last two years. The goal this season is finally to win the title. They return four starters and four key reserves from last year’s 29-3 team. The group is led by Seton Hall recruit and all-area selection Shanise Heady and Southern Mississippi recruit Samirah Ali. Seniors Jasmine Sanders and Jahmia Phillips also are returning starters.
7. Morgan Park: The Mustangs return three of their top players from last season’s 27-5 team. Morgan Park will be led by small forward Kendyl Nunn, a Toledo recruit, center Gabrielle Richmond, a St. Bonaventure recruit, and point guard Debra Jenkins, the glue of the team. Sophomore guard Shami Goodman and freshman Marsha Howard are also expected to receive major minutes. Morgan Park’s sophomore team won the city championship last year.
8. Montini: The Broncos graduated four starters, including three Division I players, from last year’s Class 3A state championship team. This is a program that reloads, though. Senior forward Tianna Brown is the lone returning starter, and she averaged eight points last season. Center Diamond Thompson was just a contributor on last year’s team, but recently committed to Notre Dame. Nikia Edom, a versatile 5-6 junior, and forward Malayna Johnson will also contribute this season. Some of the newcomers to watch will be sophomores Jasmine Lumpkin, Kelly Karlis, Kateri Stone and Sara Ross and freshmen Kelsey Bogdan and Rainey Kuykendall.
9. Bartlett: The Hawks lost all-area selection Jacki Gulczynski to graduation, but still return plenty of talent and depth from last year’s 28-2 team. The group is led by Haley Videckis, an Indiana recruit, who averaged 10 points last year. Senior Kristin Conniff also averaged 10 points last season. Bartlett also returns forward Lisa Palmer and guard Janessa Baker. Seniors Ashley Johnson, Nicole Gobbo, Natalia Grodzki and Kate Gutzwiller will also be looked to this season. Videckis’ sister Kendra, a sophomore, will also play on varsity this season.
10. Waubonsie Valley: The Warriors return five starters from last year’s 24-5 team. Senior guard Tami Morice leads the returnees after averaging 13 points last season. Becky Williford, Eric Jordan, Rachael Ross and Gratia Brooks are also back. Williford will be back from ACL surgery in December. Waubonsie Valley will also look to a sophomore and three freshmen to contribute this season.
11. Niles West: The Wolves only have two returning starters, but one of them is Jewell Loyd, and that’s all that matters. Loyd, a Notre Dame recruit, is one of the nation’s most electrifying players. She averaged 30 points, 15 rebounds, four assists, four steals and three blocks last season. She gives Niles West a chance in every game. For it to truly compete for a state title, it’ll need junior guard Molly Kleppin, the other returning starter, senior Jackie Cardena, sophomores Dashae Shumate and Alex Galanopoulous and others to contribute as much as they can.
12. Lincoln-Way East: The Griffins should again be one of the area’s top teams this season after going 25-6 last year. They return Loyola recruit Taylor Johnson, who averaged 13 points last season, and senior center Caitlin McMahan, who had 10 double-doubles last year. Senior Amy Jacobsen and juniors Meaghan McMahon and Natalie Hill should be key contributors this season as well.
13 Zion-Benton: The Zee-Bees are coming off their second-place finish in Class 4A. They return all-area selection Octavia Crump, who averaged a near double-double last season, sophomore guard Samantha Rodriguez, who started as a freshman, senior Aaliyan Smith, senior guard Morgan Franklin, and junior guard Kaitlyn Stabenow, the team’s best shooter. Senior Jessica Williams didn’t play basketball last season, but was the sophomore team’s MVP two years ago. She’ll be heavily relied on this season.
14. Fremd: The Vikings should possess one of the state’s best backcourts with senior shooting guard Jessi Wiedemann, a Valparaiso commitment, and junior point Ashley McConnell returning and the arrival of highly-touted freshman point guard Haley Gorecki. Fremd is coming off a 25-7 season and lost just one game this summer.
15. Fenwick: The Friars could be the most entertaining team to watch this season. Coach Dave Power is going full run-and-gun this year. His goal every game is to take almost 80 shots, including 40 3-pointers. Fenwick will be led by senior forward and Yale recruit Meredith Boardman, sophomore point guard Jade Owens, junior guard Maggie Reilly and senior guard Marek Burchett.
16. Geneva: Sarah Meadows replaces longtime coach Gina Nolan this season. Meadows will have a lot to work with this season. Ashley Santos, a Marquette recruit, will be the Vikings’ go-to player. She averaged 15.8 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.2 steals and 1.1 blocks last season. Geneva also returns starting guard Rachel Hinchman and junior forward Sami Pawlak from last year’s 25-7 team. Sophomores Michaela Loebel and Morgan Seberger should also contribute this year.
17. Homewood-Flossmoor: After winning 22 games in coach Dana Noble’s first year, the Vikings are out for more this year. They’ll be led by 5-10 guard Charnelle Reed, who averaged 13 points, 3.6 rebounds, three assists and 2.4 steals last season. They also return junior guards Syndi Johnson and Lauren Parker and senior forward Amena Brent.
18. New Trier: The Trevians were a bit of a rollercoaster last season. With nine seniors and 12 returnees back this season, they hope to be up more than down. The group is led by 6-1 guard Maggie Lyon, a Northwestern recruit, who averaged 17 points, eight rebounds and four assists last season. Senior forward Jessica Blackwell also averaged eight points and six rebounds last year.
19. Marian Catholic: The Spartans graduated a bulk of their talent, but this won’t be a rebuilding season. Their roster is full of young and talented players. Among those upcoming stars are sophomore guard Ashton Millender, sophomore guard Brianna Morrison and freshman guard Teniya Page. Seniors Alanna Ferry, Amber Williams and Sarafina Handy and junior Megan Walsh are back from last season, and their leadership will be key.
20. Cary-Grove: The Trojans hope to carry over the momentum of last year’s playoff run, which ended in a narrow sectional loss to Geneva. Cary-Grove returns three starters -- senior versatile guard Paige Lincicum, junior forward Olivia Jakubicek and junior guard Joslyn Nicholson -- from that 27-4 team.
Season ahead: Maine South is ready to put its focus back on the football field.
It was a stormy offseason for the Hawks following their third consecutive Class 8A state championship. The IHSA placed the program on probation, took away home playoff games and suspended coach David Inserra for one game following a lengthy investigation, which found Maine South had created counterfeit sideline passes to the state championship game and demonstrated unsportsmanlike behavior at the awards ceremony.
Maine South defensive coordinator Rick Magsamen was also suspended one game by the IHSA, but he has since left the program and joined Elk Grove's staff.
"Personally for both myself and our staff, it was difficult," Inserra said. "We're learning from it and trying to move on. Everybody's got to get better. We're not trying to dwell on it."
With the incidents behind them, the Hawks do have plenty of reason to look forward to 2011. The Hawks return a bulk of last year's state championship team, including its star quarterback Matt Alviti, running back Paul Preston and linebackers Tyler Fahey and Luke Lenti.
While some coaches don't like discussing repeating as champions, Inserra has embraced it. He hopes his team wants to win its fourth consecutive title and isn't shy to say so.
"The kids have taken it on as a motivation to work that much harder," Inserra said. "We talk about opportunities. This is an opportunity that not many kids get to win a fourth state championship."
Inserra has expanded his responsibilities this season as well. He will also be the team's defensive coordinator.
"Most coaches don't have the luxury of having both an offensive and defensive coordinator," Inserra said. "I accept the role readily. I don't want it; I want the coach [Magsamen] with me, but we'll go with it and I'll put my own twist on it. We won't change much."
Star power: Matt Alviti may become the biggest name in the state pretty quickly. The junior quarterback has already won a state championship and has offers from Illinois, Northwestern and Notre Dame. He and Maine South's offense are expected to take it up another notch or two this season. "He's so comfortable in the pocket," Inserra said. "He absolutely understands the offense. He just gets it. He can read defenses."
Breakout performer: Junior Pat Maloney got a taste of varsity last season and even played three different positions on the offensive line in the state title game. He'll be looked to this season as the team's starting offensive tackle and will also start as its defensive tackle.
Defensive difference-maker: Senior linebacker Tyler Fahey was named to the ESPNChicago.com all-area team last season. He had 81 tackles, 13 tackles for a loss, seven sacks, four interceptions, three fumble recoveries and two defensive touchdowns. "He's just such a leader on defense," Inserra said. "He just really understands the game."
Newcomer to watch: Juniors Mike Rubino and Dan Poulos will be asked to help out on the offensive line this season. Rubino is a 6-4, 210-pound center. Poulos is a 6-2, 250-pound right guard.
Schedule breakdown: Maine South has a strong non-conference schedule again with Warren and Wheaton Warrenville South in the first two weeks. The question is whether the Central Suburban South can give Maine South a game this year. The Hawks haven't lost in the Central Suburban South since 2000. They travel to New Trier and host Glenbrook South this season.
Key game: Sept. 2 vs. Wheaton Warrenville South -- Maine South was embarrassed by Wheaton Warrenville South on national television last season. The Hawks lost 44-7 on the road. This is their opportunity for revenge, and a chance to prove they're the top team in the state. "The Wheaton game is huge because it's two of the best teams in the state," Inserra said. "We're probably not going to see them in the playoffs. You want to have those bragging rights for yourself."
What they're saying: "We don't mind it," said Inserra of having five two-way players. "We love it in fact."
Season ahead: Trying to replace 19 starters from last year's Class 7A state championship team made for an interesting offseason for Wheaton Warrenville South coach Ron Muhitch and his staff.
"Our coaching staff is very tired," Muhitch said. "It's been a long summer. It's been a long doubles. They've worked hard to catch up the kids and get them experience. That was our goal to catch up this group, so it can be a top-shelf football program. Their 2011 year is now in their hands."
Coming off back-to-back state championships, the Tigers' expectations haven't changed. They're still out to win another DuPage Valley title and then repeat as state champs. What has altered, through, has been Muhitch's approach with this season's group.
"I'm a little more mellower this year," Muhitch said. "I will tell you because I'm trying to stay a little more patient with the leadership process. We're picking up the intensity a lot this week. I think that will be a big deal."
Despite Wheaton Warrenville South's youthfulness and inexperience, the Tigers do possess talent. The offensive line has good size with everyone standing taller than six feet and weighing in the mid-250s. Quarterback Thaddeus Armstrong has a strong arm and is 6-6. Running backs Patrick Garner and Dan Vitale, a Northwestern recruit, are both around 6-2 and 225 and have speed. Wide receiver Zach Zlabis is 6-4 and athletic. Defensively, the Tigers return four experienced players in linebackers Brandon Peterson and Adam Dansdill, defensive end Jack Lipinsky and safety Mike Shelton and surround them with a number of talented newcomers.
And as Glenbard West coach Chad Hetlet put it, "They're still Wheaton South. I think until you beat them, they're still the team to beat."
Star power: Unlike a lot of past Wheaton Warrenville South teams, this one doesn't possess much star power. Senior athlete and Northwestern recruit Dan Vitale is the closest player to that, but even he didn't see a whole lot of playing time last season. Vitale will play at nearly every possible offensive position this year. "He'll be all over the place," Muhitch said.
Breakout performer: Thaddeus Armstrong has the biggest shoes to fill this season. Reilly O'Toole, who is now at Illinois, led the Tigers to two consecutive state titles and the No. 1 ranking last year. Armstrong, who is a transfer from Ottawa, has a strong arm, has size at 6-6 and has quickly picked up the Tigers offense. "He's a great kid," Muhitch said. "He has a big arm and wants to do well. He wants to throw the ball. He has to be that offensive leader we need him to be."
Defensive difference-maker: Jack Lipinsky is the only defensive lineman returning from last year. He is expected to bring leadership and ability to the group. He had three tackles, one tackle for a loss and a forced fumble in last year's state title game.
Newcomers to watch: The entire offensive line is new. The Tigers will be starting all juniors this season. The line will include right tackle Frank Garcia (6-3, 250 pounds), right guard Ryan McCarthy (6-2, 225), center Rich Metzger (6-1, 270), left guard Hollis Henry (6-3, 240) and left tackle Kyle Joyce (6-5, 240). Guard Joe Kirsch (5-11, 270) should also be in the mix. "Not only are they young, but they're inexperienced," Muhitch said. "They have talent and they're big. We think the future is right in front of us."
Schedule breakdown: Wheaton Warrenville South has the toughest schedule in the state. The Tigers will play four teams in the ESPNChicago.com preseason top-20 rankings. They open the season against No. 3 Glenbard West and follow that up by facing No. 1 Maine South. The DuPage Valley doesn't get any easier this season either. Glenbard North, Naperville North and Wheaton North are all among the area's best again, and Naperville Central is expected to bounce back from last year's rocky season.
Key game: Sept. 2 at Maine South -- Plenty of preseason polls have replaced Wheaton Warrenville South with Maine South as the state's top-ranked team. This will be the Tigers' chance to prove that's untrue. They took it to Maine South last season, winning 44-7 in Week 2. Maine South didn't lose a game the rest of the season.
What they're saying: "Win or lose, we'll be a better program," Muhitch said of facing Glenbard West and Maine South in the first two weeks.
Season ahead: Whatever Glenbard West achieves this season, it will be done quickly.
While the Hilltoppers do possess some size, especially in Division I linemen Tommy Schutt and Johnny Caspers, they'll be driven by their speed this season.
"If this team can play consistently, it can be a special group," Glenbard West coach Chad Hetlet said. "We're fast. We're just really fast."
Quarterback Justice Odom is fast. Running backs Avery Balogh, Kendall Johnson and Joe Zito are fast. Tight end Nathan Marcus is fast. Linebacker Andrew Larkin and defensive lineman Kendell Kimble are fast. You get the picture. The Hilltoppers will have speed all over the field.
Glenbard West may open up its offense a bit with dual-threat quarterback Odom running the show, but it still plans to run the ball 45-plus times a game. Balogh, Johnson, Zito and a few others will all have their shots.
"I think part of our success is having a number of guys back there," Hetlet said. "One back may get hot, and he may get more touches, but we got 4-5 kids."
The offensive line will be anchored by Caspers, who is 6-3 and 275 pounds. He's being recruited by a number of top programs, including Arizona and Nebraska. The defensive line is led by Schutt, who recently committed to Penn State.
Star power: Senior defensive tackle Tommy Schutt is considered Illinois' second best prospect by ESPN. He recently committed to Penn State. He had 67 tackles, 23 tackles for a loss and 15 sacks last season. "I think from a playing standpoint, Penn State is getting a kid who isn't like a lot of others kids coming out of high school with his size and athleticism," Hetlet said. "He's powerful and strong enough. He's got the physical tools to play right away."
Breakout performer: First-year starting quarterback Justice Odom gives Glenbard West an element it hasn't had before. Odom not only has a strong arm and can pass the ball, but he also has speed and can run it. "I think he's going to surprise a lot of people," Hetlet said. "I think he could end up being one of the better quarterbacks in the state this year."
Defensive difference-maker: Linebacker Andrew Larkin made his share of key defensive plays last season, and that should be the case again this season. He's drawing interest from a number of Ivy League programs.
Newcomer to watch: Sophomore Hayden Carlson has a chance to be a special one for the Hilltoppers. He will start at free safety this season. "You have to be a man to play that position," Hetlet said. "He's legit."
Schedule breakdown: Glenbard West opens the season with two-time defending 7A state champion Wheaton Warrenville South, and it doesn't get much easier from there. The West Suburban Silver should be among the state's top conferences again. The Hilltoppers travel to Lyons in the third week and host York in Week 8. "In the Silver, there's no down year," Hetlet said. "It's not just something I'm saying. That's the truth."
Key game: Aug. 28 at Wheaton Warrenville South -- There are plenty of reasons to be excited about this game. Both teams are ranked in the area's top three. They've met in the playoffs the last two years with Wheaton Warrenville South winning in the 7A title game two years ago and in the quarterfinals last season. Finally, the game is going to be televised on ESPN2. "It's important because it's Wheaton South," Hetlet said. "They've ended our season the last two years in the quarterfinals and the state championship game. Whether we win or lose, it won't make or break our season, but it's exciting."
What they're saying: "We need to win for it to be a rivalry," said Hetlet of Wheaton Warrenville South.
Season ahead: Montini proved the last two years it deserved to be deemed the best team in Class 5A, winning back-to-back state titles.
In the overall picture, the Broncos fell somewhere among the state's top 15 teams in 2009 and within the top 10 last year. In 2011, the Broncos not only have a shot at winning their third consecutive state title, but also look to have the level of players to make a push at finishing among the truly elite in Illinois.
With Montini, it all starts with its offense. No teams looked more dominant offensively this summer than Montini and Maine South. The two also happened to go undefeated in pool play at Wheaton Warrenville South's Red Grange Classic in July and met in the championship, which Maine South won by one point.
The Broncos might just have the state's top receiving corps. They return senior Jordan Westerkamp, a Nebraska recruit, senior Anthony Taylor, who is drawing Division I interest, and junior Joseph Borsellino. The trio combined for 202 receptions, 3,094 yards and 33 touchdowns last season.
Throwing to the group will be senior quarterback John Rhode, a transfer from Marian Catholic. The offensive line will include returning starters James Lowery and Brian Piper.
Rhode was one of two football gifts Montini received in the offseason. The other was Jaleel Johnson, who transferred in from St. Joe's. He's considered one of the top defensive tackles in the country. Johnson along with senior linebacker Frank Bruscianelli, defensive lineman Josh Rogers and defensive back Tim Mikeworth will key the Broncos' defense.
Star power: Jordan Westerkamp is the state's premier wide receiver. He caught 89 passes for 1,631 yards and 21 touchdown as a junior. In Montini's Class 5A state title victory last season, he had seven receptions for 146 yards and three touchdowns. He's headed to Nebraska. "He's about as complete of a high school receiver as you're going to find," Andriano said. "He does everything, including blocking. He's very strong at catching the ball, great route running. He's got a great vertical jump, and he can take balls ways from defenders. Every part of the game is solid for him."
Breakout performer: Opposing defenses will have to pay plenty of attention to Montini's passing attack this season, and that means junior running back Dimitri Taylor could have some room to run. With his speed, the Broncos are hopeful he'll have a big season.
Defensive difference-maker: Montini isn't taking credit for molding Jaleel Johnson's talent, but the Broncos are sure happy to have him. Johnson, who is 6-4, 295 pounds, is one of the top defensive tackles in the country and is committed to Iowa. "He's a house with feet," Andriano said. "He's a big kid, moves very well. He's got very powerful hips. When he hits people, they buckle."
Newcomer to watch: John Rhodes isn't new to high school football, but he's new to Montini. A two-year starter for Marian Catholic, Rhodes transferred to Montini after his junior year and has quickly picked up the Broncos' offense. "He's got such a presence," Andriano said. "He's smart. He's quiet, but he's smart. He's a playmaker. He's got touch. He's accurate."
Schedule breakdown: Whether Montini deserves to be so highly ranked will be seen in its first two games. The Broncos start with Palatine, which reached the Class 8A quarterfinals last season and just missed being ranked this season. After the Pirates, Montini travels to face No. 11 Loyola. The Ramblers defeated Montini last season and reached the Class 8A semifinals. From Loyola, Montini jumps right into conference play with Marmion, which advanced to the Class 6A title game last year. All together, Montini will face seven teams who made the playoffs last season.
Key game: Sept. 9 at Loyola -- Montini has a difficult schedule, but Loyola will likely be the best team it faces all season. The Ramblers defeated the Broncos 31-9 at Montini last season. The Broncos went undefeated the rest of the way.
What they're saying: "Last year doesn't mean anything anymore," Andriano said. "That's over. This is their time. This is their chance. This is their chance to make their chapter of Montini football history a great one. It starts over, and they have to be ready."
Last season: 9-2 overall, 7-0 Southwest Suburban Blue, lost in the Class 7A second round to Glenbard West, ranked No. 17 in the final ESPNChicago.com 2010 poll
Season ahead: Lincoln-Way East coach Rob Zvonar can’t help but notice the similarities between his current team and his 2005 squad.
Like in 2005, this year’s Griffins return talent all over the field, including an experienced quarterback, and are coming off a successful season. The uncertainty is where the 2011 edition will end up. In 2005, the Griffins won a state championship.
The one hump this year’s team especially has to get over is advancing past the second round of the playoffs. Lincoln-Way East has had its season ended in the second round the past three years.
“I think this group without being arrogant just wants to put that target on our back and be the group that turns the tide again,” Zvonar said.
One reason for the Griffins to be optimistic this season is the return of senior quarterback Blake Winkler. As a junior and in is his first year starting on varsity, Winkler was among the area’s top quarterbacks and led the Griffins to an undefeated conference season.
A year later, Zvonar believes he’s capable of even more.
“Just his grasp of the offense,” Zvonar said. “I know it’s a cliché, but he’s truly a coach on the field. He can certainly not only know what he has to do, but he can pretty much put the other 10 guys on the offense where they need to be. He’ll be distributing the ball, spreading the ball around and making sure the offense attacks the defense in every gap horizontally and vertically.”
Winkler will be surrounded by offensive talent as well. Wide receivers Jason Robertson and Jay Yancy have big-play ability, and running back Tyler Starke will make sure defenses don’t focus only on the pass. The Griffins also have a massive offensive line, averaging more than 260 pounds a player.
Star power: Jason Robertson falls in that elite category of wide receiver in the state, and there are only a few of them. Robertson, who is committed to Illinois, caught 25 passes for 600 yards and nine touchdowns last season. “First and foremost, he’s an absolute fierce competitor that has tremendous athleticism and ball skills,” Zvonar said. “He put himself on the map a year ago with some explosive plays. He can beat people deep and catch short-to-intermediate balls and get you yards after the catch.”
Breakout performer: Senior safety Kevin Slawkowski was hampered by an injury last season and didn’t get a full chance to show his ability in the secondary. That’s expected to change this season. “If he gets healthy, he can be as good of a free safety as we’ve had,” Zvonar said.
Defensive difference-maker: There are question marks for the Griffins' defense, but defensive tackle Matt Solner helps relieve some of those concerns. Solner, who is drawing Division I interest, should be around the ball plenty this season. “Matt Solner is just a throwback,” Zvonar said. “He’s a blue-collar kid with great size and athleticism. He’s a very lean 260 pounds.
Newcomer to watch: Junior Adam O’Grady reminds Zvonar of ESPNChicago.com all-area selection Pat Meehan with his all-around ability at linebacker.“We really like what we’re seeing out of him,” Zvonar said.
Schedule breakdown: The Southwest Suburban Blue should be highly competitive again and among the area’s top conferences. Lincoln-Way East and Homewood-Flossmoor are the favorites, but Bolingbrook, Lockport and Sandburg shouldn’t be too far behind. The Griffins should have no troubles in their non-conference with Edwardsville and Dunbar in the opening two weeks.
Key game: Sept. 16 at Homewood-Flossmoor – Homewood-Flossmoor gave Lincoln-Way Way its toughest conference game last season. The Griffins pulled out a 31-21 win. Homewood-Flossmoor also advanced further than any conference team in the playoffs, making it to the Class 8A semifinals. This game could decide the conference champion.
What they’re saying: “We have not been a great playoff team the last couple years,” Zvonar said. “This team would like to break that second-round stigma.”
Last season: 11-2 overall, 4-1 Catholic League Blue, lost in the Class 7A semifinals to Lake Zurich, ranked No. 6 in the final ESPNChicago.com 2010 poll
Season ahead: St. Rita senior linebacker Will McNamara doesn’t look back fondly at winning a share of the Catholic League Blue title.
It stings him that the Mustangs had to share the honor with Loyola and Mount Carmel.
“It’s a horrible feeling,” McNamara said. “We were three points away from winning it ourselves. That’s a horrible feeling. We turned the ball over six times. We should have easily won that game to Loyola.”
Needless to say, McNamara and company aren’t content in just getting a piece of the title again this season. They want it all to themselves.
Although Loyola and Mount Carmel also found places in ESPNChicago.com’s top 20 and Brother Rice and Providence should be in the mix, St. Rita is the favorite heading into the season.
The Mustangs will possess one of the biggest offensive lines in the state. Across the board, they’ll average more than 250 pounds. Behind that line, St. Rita coach Todd Kuska feels he has a couple capable running backs in Guerby Ministre and Mike Zunica, quarterback Scott Thomas and a handful of receivers.
On defense, the Mustangs return three-year starters McNamara and safety Charles Elmore, defensive end Pat O’Connor, who is drawing D-I looks, and a few other returnees.
“I feel we’re a hungry group of guys,” Kuska said.
Star power: St. Rita has plenty of size on its offensive line, but no one is bigger than 6-foot-8, 310-pound Nick Dachota. He’ll be the anchor of the Mustangs offensive line. He’s also receiving Division I interest.
Breakout performer: Senior quarterback Scott Thomas was given a small opportunity to prove himself last season. He started three games and held his own. Now as the full-time starter, Thomas will look to show he can lead St. Rita to a state title.
Defensive difference-maker: Linebacker Will McNamara and safety Charles Elmore give the Mustangs experience and skill at their respective positions. “They’re three-year starters,” Kuska said. “They’ve seen a lot. They have speed and knowledge. They can change directions very quickly. They can make sure other guys are lined up correctly.”
Newcomer to watch: St. Rita had a devastating rushing game last season with Juhwon Akui and Travis Starks. With both graduated, junior Guerby Ministre will become St. Rita’s featured back. “He’s got very good instincts,” Kuska said. “He’s able to start and stop quickly. He’s got good hands. He has a good talent set we’re hoping to use this year.”
Schedule breakdown: St. Rita’s two toughest games come at the end of its regular-season schedule with Mount Carmel and Loyola in back-to-back weeks. All three teams earned a shared of the Catholic League Blue title last year. If St. Rita wants at least a piece of it again, the Mustangs will need to finish the season strong. In their non-conference schedule, they face two out-of-state opponents. They’ll play Whitehaven from Memphis, Tenn. in East St. Louis.
Key game: Oct. 14 vs. Mount Carmel – It’s no different than any other year. Mount Carmel and St. Rita is one of the biggest games of the Illinois high school football season. St. Rita is riding a three-game winning streak against its rivals. “I think we’re going to stick it to them again and beat them again,” McNamara said.
What they’re saying: “I definitely want a state championship,” Elmore said. “I feel as a junior I let the seniors down.”
Last season: 11-3 overall, 4-1 Catholic League Blue, lost in the Class 8A state championship to Maine South, ranked No. 7 in the final ESPNChicago.com 2010 poll
Season ahead: With Mount Carmel coach Frank Lenti having more than 300 wins and nine state titles to his name, it takes a lot to satisfy him.
Through nearly two weeks of practice, his team hasn’t accomplished that.
“Very so-so,” Lenti said. “I’m not happy with the consistency. Last year, I felt we were a little ahead of where we are right now. I don’t know why. If I knew that, I’d be at the Horseshoe Casino. I don’t know if the kids are waiting around for someone to take the lead. We’ll have a couple of good practices and then a so-so practice.”
The Caravan have some holes to fill from last year’s team, especially with quarterback Chris Sujka and running back Michael Banks graduating, but they have talent back and enough skilled newcomers to believe they’re capable of making another run at a state title.
Star power: Senior defensive tackle Vontrell Williams is one of the state’s most coveted defensive prospects. He’s narrowed his options to Illinois, Indiana and Kansas. He had 15 tackles for a loss last season.
Breakout performer: Running back Brandon Greer, who is committed to Central Michigan, will get the bulk of the carries this season and has the speed to be a game-changer. He’ll also start at defensive back. “He gives you a nice complete package,” Lenti said. “He can catch the ball. He can run the ball. He can make you miss. He can run by you.”
Defensive difference-maker: While all the defensive attention goes to Vontrell Williams, Lenti actually calls linebacker Derrick Bryant his best defensive player. “He’s got a nose for the ball,” Lenti said. “He’s a little undersized. He can really play and run well. If he was six-feet tall, he’d be able to go to a lot of places.”
Newcomer to watch: Mount Carmel hands over its option offense to first-year starting quarterback Don Butkus, whose great uncle is legendary football player Dick Butkus. As Mount Carmel has done in the past, Lenti expects Butkus to be a two-year starter for the Caravan. “We’ve always had a junior step in and be a two-starter for us,” Lenti said. “He loves to compete. He’s very smart. He’s a very cerebral young man. He gets the game.”
Schedule breakdown: There are very few cupcakes in Mount Carmel’s schedule. The Caravan open the season facing two of the Chicago Public League’s best teams in Simeon and Morgan Park. Simeon upset Mount Carmel last season. Of course, the Catholic League will be the Catholic League again. Loyola and St. Rita fall in that elite category again, and Brother Rice and Providence are expected to be much improved from last season. The Caravan do have the misfortune of having to play Loyola and St. Rita on the road.
Key game: Oct. 14 at St. Rita – St. Rita has had Mount Carmel’s number in their last three meetings. The Caravan will look to break that streak on St. Rita’s home field this season. This game will also likely help determine the Catholic League Blue champion.
What they’re saying: “We came out of nowhere last year,” Lenti said. “We were picked fourth in the conference. Chris Sujka and some other guys took that team and carried us on their backs. We haven’t seen anyone do that this year.”
Season ahead: Carmel coach Andy Bitto had to stop and think when asked whether he had ever possessed so much backfield experience.
After a moment's time, Bitto found his answer.
"We've never had as much experience," Bitto said. "All of them are three-year starters. That's kind of rare."
While Bitto describes it as rare, it's likely opposing defenses will find other adjectives for Carmel's rushing attack this season. With the Corsairs return three-year senior starters Jordan Kos, Michael Panico and Matt Maher in the backfield, defenses will have their work cut out of them with Carmel's option offense.
"Once you got kids who know what they're doing, you can use multiple formations," Bitto said. "You don't have to run different plays. You can use different kinds of motions. You can confuse the defense and make them prepare for more stuff."
With some size in the offensive line and another speed weapon in senior quarterback Brian Brennan, the Corsairs will look to improve on last season's 34.8 points per game.
Defensively, Carmel also possesses speed all over the field from its linemen to its linebackers to its secondary. Linebackers Tyler Lees and Kevin Cox will likely be leading the hunt on each snap.
"I heard Wayne Gretzky was so fast he could correct himself if he made a mistake before it fell apart," Bitto said. "When you got that kind of speed, you can make up for it. But we don't want to make too many mistakes."
Star power: Jordan Kos rushed for 16 touchdowns and nearly 1,500 yards last season. He's on track to break the school's all-time rushing mark. In the offseason, he added some bulk to his frame. "Jordan is 10 pounds heavier and 10 pounds stronger this season," Bitto said.
Breakout performer: Senior Brian Brennan was Carmel's quarterback on the sophomore team, but was moved to the secondary on varsity last season with the Corsairs already having a quarterback in place. Now, Brennan gets his opportunity at his original position. "He's another runner," Bitto said. "He's quicker than heck."
Defensive difference-maker: Tyler Lees was among the area's elite linebackers last season and made more than 100 tackles for the Corsairs. With the graduation of Luke Venegoni, Lees steps into the leadership role for Carmel. "Some kids can run," Bitto said. "Some kids can hit. He can run and hit. He makes plays."
Newcomer to watch: Senior Jack Schoen opted to run cross country instead of playing football last season. He was on the sophomore football team the year before. Now as a senior, he's returned to football and will be a starting wide receiver. "It's rare for a kid that doesn't come out and starts," Bitto said. "He's probably the biggest surprise in camp."
Schedule breakdown: A lot of attention will be paid to Carmel's season opener against Joliet Catholic, but the rest of the East Suburban Catholic should be tough, too. Starting this season, the East Suburban Catholic will play eight conference games and one non-conference game. Carmel is playing Wayzata from Minnesota in its non-conference game.
Key game: Aug. 26 at Joliet Catholic -- One game doesn't decide a season, but it could determine the East Suburban Catholic title. Carmel went undefeated in conference last season and was followed by Joliet Catholic and Marian Catholic, which each had one loss. Carmel won last year's meeting with Joliet Catholic, 31-28. In 2009, Joliet Catholic won 19-16. "It's a good chance right away to go to their stadium and play in front of a huge crowd on TV," Bitto said. "You get to know where you're at right away."
What they're saying: "At the end of last year, we were kind of disappointed on losing [to St. Rita,]" Bitto said. "It really came down to, ‘Are we tough enough?' We have to be tough physically and mentally."
Last season: 12-2 overall, 5-1 North Suburban Lake, lost in the Class 7A state championship to Wheaton Warrenville South, ranked No. 2 in the final ESPNChicago.com 2010 poll
Season ahead: Coach Bryan Stortz has changed where expectations rest year in and year out at Lake Zurich.
In his previous five years with the Bears, they’ve won one state title, finished second twice, reached the quarterfinals four times and made the playoffs every season. Only a handful of coaches in the state have had more impressive runs.
Coming off last season’s runner-up finish, Lake Zurich is expected to be in the mix in Class 7A again. The Bears return nine starters, including quarterback Zach Till, running back/safety Mike Shield and linebacker/wide receiver Jack Lynn.
The Bears defense should again be among the state’s best. Lake Zurich will posses plenty of speed and skill in its linebackers and secondary. The offense has to replace Jacob Brinlee, but there are some talented players coming up.
“I believe in this team,” Lynn said. “We’re going to make a run.”
Star power: Senior Jack Lynn is among the state’s premier linebackers. He had 61 tackles and four sacks last season. He’s committed to Minnesota. “His God-given ability is he has length,” Stortz said. “He has long arms and height. What he does work ethic-wise is he goes full speed all the time. He doesn’t take a play off in practice. He’s explosive. He moves well in space. He has good closing speed.”
Breakout performer: Grant Soucy started as a sophomore at defensive back for the Bears. Now a year older and more experienced, Soucy could be an impact player for the Bears.
Defensive difference-maker: Mike Shield will likely be a difference-maker on both sides of the ball as a running back and strong safety.
Newcomer to watch: Connor Schrader, a transfer from Dunlap, is expected to help fill the shoes of graduated running back Jacob Brinlee. “He’s explosive running,” Lynn said. “He’ll hit the hole and hit it hard.”
Schedule breakdown: The Bears open with two intriguing opponents – Fremd and Cary-Grove. Fremd is traditionally one of the area’s top teams, but did graduate a number of players. Cary-Grove is a smaller school, but it does have a number of quality returning players. Both games could test Lake Zurich. As far as the North Suburban, it should be competitive again most of the way through.
Key game: Oct. 6 at Stevenson -- Stevenson was the only team to hand Lake Zurich a regular-season loss. The Bears lost 24-23 at home in one of the best games of the season. This would be their chance for revenge on Stevenson’s field.
What they’re saying: “You can’t replace people,” Stortz said. “You can replace a position. I think that’s what we’re doing.”
Last season: 11-1 overall, 5-0 Illini Red Bird, lost in the Class 7A quarterfinals to Lake Zurich, ranked No. 8 in the final ESPNChiago.com 2010 poll
Season ahead: Outside of Simeon’s program, plenty of people are curious whether this year’s team can become the first Chicago Public League one to win a state football championship.
Inside of the program, the Wolverines don’t speak of it.
“Never,” Simeon coach Dante Culbreath said. “Never talk about it, never talk about winning state. My focus and our focus is just to play hard. Play hard and be disciplined. I always tell the team and coaches through that, anything is possible. If that’s the desire and that’s the dream, do this, and we’ll see what happens after that.”
The bar has been raised at Simeon. Coming off last year’s Class 7A state quarterfinal appearance and quality wins over Mount Carmel, Morgan Park and Schaumburg, the Wolverines have proven they can compete with the state’s best.
That’s expected to be the case again this season. Simeon returns a bulk of its offense, including quarterback Robert Gregory and highly-recruited offensive lineman Jordan Diamond, and a number of key defensive players.
Star power: Simeon offensive lineman Jordan Diamond is ESPN’s highest ranked prospect in Illinois. The 6-foot-5, 305-pound lineman is ranked the No. 102 player in the Class of 2012 and the 14th offensive tackle. He’s being recruited by nearly every top program in the country. “He grew as far as his mindset and having more of a leadership role this year with the team,” Culbreath said. “He’s also worked hard in the weight room this offseason and put a little bulk on and got a little bit faster. We had a plan for him this offseason.”
Breakout performer: Junior Sharoid Roach steps into the lead halfback role with the graduation of Horactio Banks. Culbreath said he especially liked Roach’s football IQ.
Defensive difference-maker: Shaquille Joyner gives Simeon experience and skill at linebacker. Joyner has been receiving some Division I looks.
Newcomer to watch: Junior Devonate Lee, who is 6-6, will help fill one of Simeon’s holes in the offensive line.
Schedule breakdown: Simeon’s schedule is frontloaded. The Wolverines open the season with three tough games in Mount Carmel, Jefferson City, Mo. and Morgan Park. After that, the schedule loosens up. “If we don’t do them right, we could be 0-3,” Culbreath said. “We’re not looking to dodge anything. We’re not looking to run from anything. I like to throw them out there and see how they respond.”
Key game: Aug. 26 vs. Mount Carmel – Simeon shocked the state’s high school football scene when it defeated Mount Carmel in the season opener last season. It made everyone realize the Wolverines were for real. Mount Carmel will obviously be looking for revenge. This game will be part of tripleheader at Solider Field. “It’s Mount Carmel,” Culbreath said. “It’s the best of Illinois. You get an opportunity to play those guys, and you just got to play hard. It’s been Mount Carmel for years. What those guys have done over there is legendary. We’re just a small group out here working.”
What they’re saying: “Expectations are for us to be a sound football team and play hard,” Culbreath said. “If I had an expectation, I just want these young boys to compete every day.”
Season ahead: No team would like to see Maine South’s Class 8A reign end more than Loyola.
The Ramblers have had their state championship hopes dashed by Maine South the past two seasons in the Class 8A state semifinals. Maine South went on to win the state championship both times.
Looking back at what got them there, Loyola coach John Holecek believes his team knows what it takes to make another state run and hopefully finish it.
“I think taking one game at a time, taking one play at a time, taking care of those little things,” Holecek said. “You look back on film, and those games are won and lost on the little things. I think we have a script that we know what we’re doing.”
Loyola’s defense under Holecek has consistently been among the state’s best, and he anticipated continuing that tradition despite only having three returning starters this season.
“Here, we play good defensive football,” Holecek said. “We expect that every year no matter who we play. We expect to be very tough on defense.”
The offense has similar expectations with quarterback Malcolm Weaver, wide receivers Marquese Martin-Hayes and Charlie Dowdle, offensive lineman Robert Delaney and running back Willie Palivos all returning.
“I know we’re good,” Holecek said. “I don’t know if we’re very good or a great team. You won’t see that until you play Evanston and Montini. I don’t know if we have the ability to play with the big boys.”
Star power: Weaver was among the area’s top quarterbacks as a junior. He’s a true dual-threat quarterback. He has the speed to beat defenses with his legs and also the arm to throw it past them. “He knows the offense,” Holecek said. “It looks like he’s stronger and faster. I want him to do what’s successful. If they’re covering our receivers, which will be a hard chore, we’ll be running the ball with the running backs and Malcolm.”
Breakout performers: Wide receiver E.J. Webb was the star of Loyola’s passing attack last season. With Webb now graduated, watch for Martin-Hayes and Dowdle to continue in his footsteps. Martin-Hayes and Dowdle were key pieces to Loyola’s offense last season, but they should have even bigger roles this season. “Charlie is a big, tall, tough kid that catches everything,” Holecek said. “Marquese has that top end speed and has great hands.”
Defensive difference-makers: The Ramblers return three defensive starters from last season, and all three are expected to be forces. The trio includes linebacker Daveed Carter and defensive backs Scott Suhey and Robert Dooley. “They should all be good players,” Holecek said.
Newcomer to watch: Luke Ford is expected to step into the secondary and contribute right away. “He’s tall, smart and athletic,” Holecek said.
Schedule breakdown: There won’t be many easy games for the Ramblers again this season. They face one of the state’s best offenses in Montini during their non-conference season and again have to go through the weekly grind of the Catholic League Blue. The one advantage to their schedule is they host Montini, Mount Carmel and St. Rita. “I think every year it’s completely open,” Holecek said of the Catholic League. “Unless you’re returning 15 starters or more, every year is a question mark.”
Key game: Oct. 22 vs. St. Rita -- Loyola earned itself a share of the Catholic League title last season by knocking off St. Rita on the road. Both teams are expected to be among the conference contenders again, and St. Rita will certainly be looking for revenge on Loyola’s field to end the regular season.
What they’re saying: “I don’t think this school is going to provide too many years where we’re bare in the talent pool,” Holecek said. “We have a collection of kids who know how to play football, are tough and want to play football. We’ll always have a chance.”
Season ahead: Joliet Catholic senior running back Malin Jones will only be satisfied with one outcome this season.
“I’ll be disappointed this year if we don’t win state,” Jones said.
Like the last two seasons, Joliet Catholic will be among the Class 5A favorites. Last season, the Hilltoppers were upset by Peoria Richwoods in the state quarterfinals. Two years ago, they were upset by Montini in the championship game.
Jones doesn’t plan on history repeating itself again.
“I care about conference,” Jones said. “I care about a nice record. But if we don’t win state, I won’t be a happy guy.”
Jones and Ty Issac are two of the main reasons why Joliet Catholic has a chance to win its seventh state title under coach Dan Sharp. Jones, who is headed to Northwestern, and Issac, who is highly recruited, make up arguably the state’s best backfield. And that’s despite the graduation of all-area running back Josh Ferguson.
“We’re just going to be as dangerous as last season,” Jones said. “They won’t be able to key on any of us. If you do, someone else will take it the distance.”
Star power: Ferguson, who is now at Illinois, made a run for ESPNChicago.com Player of the Year last season, and it’s expected Jones will do the same this season. He ran for 1,022 yards and 13 touchdowns last season and will likely pick up a few more carries this season. “I’ve more explosive, have more acceleration,” Jones said.
Breakout performer: Joliet Catholic graduated nearly its entire offensive line last season, but it does return starting tackle Jake Jankowski. His leadership and ability could be a key to the team’s success this season.
Defensive difference-maker: Austin Bolton returns as a starting linebacker for the Hilltoppers and should be a key contributor for the defense.
Newcomer to watch: Sophomore offensive lineman J.B. Butler has a chance to be a good one. He’ll step in this season and help out an inexperienced offensive line.
Schedule breakdown: Joliet Catholic can avenge its two losses from last season during the opening three weeks. The Hilltoppers meet Carmel in their season opener and Peoria Richwoods in Week 3. The East Suburban Catholic should be among the state’s top conferences again this season, and there won’t be any easy games. The Hilltoppers close out the regular season at Marist.
Key game: Aug. 26 vs. Carmel -- Carmel was the only regular-season opponent to defeat Joliet Catholic last year. Carmel defeated the Hilltoppers 31-28 at home. Carmel went on to an undefeated conference season, and Joliet Catholic finished one game behind. This season’s East Suburban Catholic showdown comes in the opening week. “I’m glad they’re our first game,” Jones said. “They’ve been a lot of motivation for us in the summer.”
What they’re saying: “We got to be (an) all-game team,” Jones said. “We can’t be a first-two-quarter team. We can’t be a slow-start team. We need to learn to be a four-quarter team.”
Season ahead: In Homewood-Flossmoor coach Craig Buzea’s first season, he turned the Vikings around from 1-8 in 2009 to reaching the Class 8A state semifinals in 2010.
“I knew we had some talent,” Buzea said after last year’s semifinal loss to Mount Carmel. “There were a lot of things to fix. The least of our worries were football related. There were some things that we really had to fix quickly to get where we were. We still got a long way. The kids who hung in here got to play in an atmosphere like this and I’m very, very proud they were able to do so.”
Now moving forward, the question is what will he do for an encore?
The next step would be getting the Vikings to make back-to-back playoff appearances. The program did so in 2005 and 2006, but you would have to go back to the 1990s to find it before that.
With senior quarterback Tim Williams, one of the area’s best, and a handful of other returnees back, Homewood-Flossmoor is hopeful it can continue to move forward.
Star power: Williams is one of the best two-sport athletes in the state, starring in basketball and football for the Vikings. The football team does hope he won’t be joining the hoops team until late November this year. Williams, who is 6-7, was key to the Homewood-Flossmoor’s late football run late season. He’s agile for his size and has a good arm. He was 15-of-21 passing for 169 yards in the state semifinal game.
Breakout performer: Tight end Willie Ross was the only sophomore on last year’s varsity roster. While he had some ability last year, look for the 6-4 Ross to have an even bigger role in the Vikings’ offense this season.
Keep an eye on: The Vikings return plenty of experience at wide receiver. Keith Smith, Sean Jones and Sheldon Jones are all back and will be capable targets for Williams again.
Schedule breakdown: The Southwest Suburban Blue put five teams in the playoffs last season, and it looks to be on the verge of that again this season. The Vikings will be tested plenty during the conference season. They should benefit by playing Lincoln-Way East and Bolingbrook at home.
Key game: Sept. 16 vs. Lincoln-Way East – Homewood-Flossmoor’s only conference loss came to Lincoln-Way East last season. The Griffins won 31-21 at home and went onto go undefeated in conference. This game could decide the conference championship again.