Let's get everyone caught up with some links to our continuing high school football preview series.
The local team most likely to make a deep run in the playoffs this fall? Well, once again it's defending Class 3A state champion Aurora Christian. Yes, quarterback Anthony Maddie graduated and moved on to Western Michigan University. But look at what is left: Defensive back Brandon Mayes is a great player. You've got a D-I wide receiver in Chad Beebe. Ryan Suttle is a solid two-way performer. If running back/linebacker Joel Bouagnon -- a transfer from Burlington Central -- is eligible, there's another top-flight player. Aurora Christian coach Don Beebe says he won't have to ask any of his linemen to play both ways this season. That's huge in small-school football. The question is whether senior Ryan McQuade can adequately fill Maddie's shoes at quarterback. I'm going to say he will, and that will lead to another big year for the Eagles.
Looking for another team that's loaded for a big year? Go west to Kaneland. The Knights have made the Class 5A semifinals each of the last two years. Last year, they did it with seven sophomores in their lineup, including QB Drew David and RB Jesse Balluff. Kaneland returns four starters on its offensive line. With the experience up front and the quality of the skill kids the Knights have, I expect them to pile up the points once again this year. Kaneland scored 521 points in 13 games last year. That's just about 40 per game. I see no reason why the Knights can't continue at that pace. They've got some good players on defense, too, in senior safety Kory Harner and linebackers Ryan Lawrence and Blake Bradford. This is a good Class 5A team.
How about Mooseheart? The Red Ramblers were a nice story last year -- an undefeated regular season, a Northeast Athletic Conference championship and the second playoff victory in program history. That's going to be tough to duplicate. The Ramblers graduated 16 seniors. In Class 1A football, that's two-thirds of a roster. Some important skill kids are back, including senior quarterback Jon Hart and running back Oumaru Abdulahi. Senior running back/linebacker/kicker Sahr Mahoney can play a little bit, too. The question is whether anybody will be able to block for these talented players. Coach Gary Urwiler has his hands full trying to rebuild his offensive and defensive lines. If the veteran coach can get that done, he has the skill guys to get back to the playoffs.
Aurora Central hasn't made the playoffs since 1997, but we've seen progress since coach Brian Casey took over the program. Casey has gone 7-11 in his first two seasons, which doesn't seem great on the surface until you consider the Chargers won only six games total from 2004-2009. The numbers have almost doubled in the program over the last two years. Casey expects to dress 40 varsity kids for Friday night's home opener against Pontiac. You don't have to think too far back in the past to remember a time where ACC had fewer than 25 healthy bodies standing on its sideline. The Chargers also have 14 starters back off a team that went 4-5 last season, and frankly, should have made the playoffs. ACC lost to two teams it should have beaten last year -- Guerin and Walther Lutheran. If the Chargers learn from last year and beat the teams they are supposed to beat, I wouldn't rule out a playoff bid this fall.
Yorkville is another team looking to take that next step and make it to the playoffs. The Foxes were looking good last year when they started out 4-0, but then they hit the meat of their schedule and never won again. Yorkville must shore up its defense, which surrendered 37 points per game over the final five games of last season -- all losses. Hall of Fame coach Karl Hoinkes is now in his second season at the helm, so the players should have a better feel for the system and the expectations. And, as all area fans know, any Hoinkes team is going to commit to the running game. The Yorkville coaching staff has been focused on improving its line play on both sides of the ball. More tenacious play is needed up front, according to Hoinkes. The Foxes once again have a favorable schedule in the early going -- Ottawa, East Aurora, Dixon, LaSalle-Peru, these are winnable contests. It remains to be seen whether Yorkville is ready to step up and beat the Morrises, Kanelands, Rochelles and Sycamores of the world.