Ottawa coaches eye the footwork as the Pirates run through agility drills late Monday afternoon during the state's opening day of football practice. All seven of The Times area's gridiron teams officially opened the 2019 season.
Ottawa coaches eye the footwork as the Pirates run through agility drills late Monday afternoon during the state's opening day of football practice. All seven of The Times area's gridiron teams officially opened the 2019 season. — The Times | Tom Sistak

The 2019 Illinois high school football season officially got underway Monday, with practices — midnight madness under the lights to afternoons crammed in a gymnasium to evening walkthroughs dodging raindrops and everything in between — opening across the state.

Here are first-day reports from across The Times area:

Ottawa Pirates

OTTAWA — The rainy weather didn't dampen the spirits of the Ottawa Pirates during their initial practice late Monday afternoon.

"You know, looking at the weather, we were kind of hoping we had a little window, which was nice we were able to get out here and get some stuff done; you never want to be inside Day 1," Pirates coach Chad Gross said. "We battled through the rain, and it was a good opportunity for (the kids) to get used to a wet ball right away. It was a nice mental challenge for the kids; you know, they've got to start focusing a little bit more on some things."

Gross had 47 varsity players — sophomores through seniors — in attendance.

"Today, we had 47 — we had a couple kids on vacation — but we're expecting (to end up at) 51," Gross said. "That's very consistent with how many we had this summer. So I'm happy with our numbers; 50 is a very good number for us right now."

Gross also noted that the freshman team has 30 kids out, a number he's pleased about.

The opening practice went "a lot smoother" this year than last, according to Gross, now in his second year at the helm.

"I think just organization-wise much better and the flow with the same (coaching) staff," Gross said. "I feel like we were much ahead of where we were Day 1 last season. I think our kids have done the mental part all summer long, and I felt like we as a coaching staff have done a better job of teaching them just our basic stuff, and the kids have that down pretty well right now. And that's kind of what we repped today, and we'll just keep adding to that.

"Today, you know, we wanted to get out here and just kind of get going. Review is pretty much what is was; review what we learned this summer: a lot of basic stuff for us ... nothing too complex for them, just trying to get the basics in."

Gross was satisfied with his squad's performance the first official day of the season.

"It is different than summer stuff. This is official football," Gross said. "The kids are starting to battle for positions. There's a lot of open spots, and I think the kids are coming out and competing for them.

"I'm very happy with Day 1. The kids' effort was great. Attendance was good. The only thing that didn't cooperate was the weather, but it's a good challenge for us."

— Kyle Nevins

Sandwich Indians

SANDWICH — Cole Frieders is in the middle of everything Sandwich does on both sides of the ball.

Which sounds just fine to his coach.

Frieders stepped in as a junior and won the starting center job. Sandwich head coach Kris Cassie could rarely get him off the field, either at center or at defensive tackle. Frieders was a core member of a group that led the Indians to a 4-5 record in Cassie's first season as head coach, Sandwich's most wins since 2013.

Frieders, who now will play middle linebacker, sounds like a kid who's hardly rested on his laurels.

"Hard-working kid," Cassie said. "He trained all spring in the weight room to get prepared for his senior year. He has been doing everything possible to get himself prepared for his senior year."

That continued Monday, as Frieders and the Indians joined teams from across Illinois in the first day of practice. Steady rain forced Sandwich indoors, but the dreary weather couldn't dampen the positive vibe the Indians hope to carry over from last season.

"I've been looking forward to this first day since the end of last season," Frieders said. "It's a good vibe, a lot of good energy transferred over, a winning attitude. Intensity has been up. Same offense, same defense, it's going to carry over."

Cassie plans on it.

While Sandwich graduated some significant pieces off last year's team, the Indians return their entire coaching staff. Cassie was a bundle of energy Monday, addressing a rapt Indians' audience, then getting them started on lines and drills while marching in and out of the gym.

"It's a high-energy day, for me," Cassie said. "It starts Year 2 of our journey, carries over from summer work. We're going to pick up right where we left off, keep building our football knowledge and get ready for the season."

Sandwich's numbers, program-wide, are up from 48 at the end of last season to 59 now, and the numbers are trending up. But the varsity roster is a bit lean, which could mean some sophomores will be cutting their teeth on Friday nights.

It will be a stiff challenge for the Indians to match last year's win total, or grab a fifth win to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2013. The likes of Kaneland, Sycamore, Morris and Rochelle have come aboard to form the revamped Interstate Eight Conference. Sandwich and Plano are now the smallest schools in the league.

Cassie's most immediate concern is the season opener with Chicago Hope.

"The mentality I've always had is there are challenges in life and how do you attack those challenges. I tend to go full steam ahead," Cassie said. "That's what I want my guys to do. Don't fear anybody. Football is football. It's blocking and tackling, fundamentals and strategy. The expectations is for us to perform our best each and every week. That's all I cover with expectations."

— Joshua Welge

Streator Bulldogs

STREATOR — For the Streator Bulldogs and fifth-year head coach Brian Hassett, the weather didn't put a stop to the first day of practice at the SHS Athletic Fields on Monday afternoon.

"We were scheduled to go 3-7, but we were able to get a little window there weather-wise to get our on-field stuff in and then did our (indoor) chalk talk after," said Hassett. "We were able to get two and a half hours in outside, and we got our work done."

Hassett said the numbers are down from the previous couple of seasons, but says that seems to be the case across the state, including the new Illinois Central Eight Conference that the Bulldogs will be playing in this season.

"We have 54 players out across the board, so our numbers are certainly down, but I think once school starts the numbers will go go up in the lower levels," Hassett said. "We are only going to have varsity and JV levels this year, but a lot of schools are in the same boat. I know in our conference there are only two schools that are going three levels, so this isn't a unique situation, but I was hoping for more numbers so we could stay with three levels of football."

The Bulldogs have finished the past two seasons at 3-6 after making the Class 5A playoffs in 2017, but Hassett said he liked what he saw in the first day of practice and expects things will only improve as his club works to the season-opening kickoff.

"We went with our normal pursuit drill that we begin every practice with to get the kids' motors running for the first half hour," Hassett said. "We then worked on team offense, team defense and finished things up with pretty intense conditioning drills. We then went to the classroom, and throughout everything today the kids we very attentive.

"It was a good first practice."

Streator opens the season by hosting East Peoria on Friday, Aug. 30, then travels to Morton in Week 2 on Sept. 6. The Bulldogs open conference play in Week 3 when Wilmington comes to town.

"I think this group is pretty gifted athletically, but our weakness may be overall depth," said Hassett. "We are going to implement more conditioning that will tie into the team aspect. We are trying to tie everything we do into game situations, and we want the kids to be in the best shape that they can be.

"I feel we have some really good football players this year and will do everything we can as coaches to put them in positions to succeed each and every play."

— Brian Hoxsey

Seneca Fighting Irish

SENECA — For the first year since 1979, Seneca High School played football outside the Interstate Eight Conference last season competing during its initial campaign within the Sangamon Valley Conference.

The Fighting Irish saw some mixed results in their new league and now on the first day of 2019 preseason practice, eighth-year head coach Ted O'Boyle is hoping to kickstart a more consistent effort with a group of competitors he was pleased with on Day 1.

"Today was a good first day, no doubt about it, and I've been doing this a long time no,w so I know that the first practice can often come with some ups and downs," O'Boyle said. "We had close to 50 kids here today combined in all four classes, and maybe that doesn’t sound great, but when I talk to other coaches about their numbers I'm extremely satisfied to have that many guys wanting to play.

"I'm happy with the first day, happy with the effort, and I'm really looking forward for Day 2 and beyond moving toward the start of the season."

Seneca's veteran sideline boss figures the numbers will be right around 25 varsity players and 25 junior varsity competitors, with the biggest impression so far coming from his upperclassmen.

"We have about 10 seniors that weren't necessarily the best players as juniors, but you can see they've put in tons of time over this summer to improve themselves," O'Boyle said. "I could tell the difference in them already today. That's really great to see and what it’s all about."

Seneca will start its 2019 campaign with a pair of nonconference home games, the opener coming on Saturday, Aug. 31 where the Irish will host the Rams from Shelbyville. Then in Week 2, SHS will watch rival Marquette Academy come to town before the Irish start the SVC grind in Week 3 at Dwight.

"The guys we had here today have already made the hardest decision, and that's to be involved and present on the first day of practice," O'Boyle said. "Now it's taking it from there, keeping it simple, building fundamentals with a lot of rep work that will make us stronger.

"Hopefully we'll continue to do the little things like that and we'll continue to grow and improve as practices move ahead to Week 1."

— Bill Lidinsky

Fieldcrest Knights

MINONK — Positional battles at two of if not the two most critical positions in high school football — quarterback and linebacker — headlined opening-day practices Monday afternoon in Minonk as the Fieldcrest Knights began preseason work toward a second straight playoff appearance and their fifth in six seasons under head coach Derek Schneeman.

"Quarterback, obviously, is the big thing for us," said Schneeman, who runs a balanced pass-run attack with more emphasis on the pass than most high school programs. "It's between Matt Lorton, a senior, and Cory Land, a junior. Both have done a really, really good job, and it's going to be a tough decision. They both bring different skill sets, but I'm confident whichever one wins the competition is going to do a good job.

"And linebacker too, where we have three new linebackers, we have to figure out who's going to fill those roles. Breaking in three new linebackers is going to be interesting."

Program-wide, numbers for Fieldcrest are right around 50 players with heavier turnout from the upperclassmen. Schneeman intends to dress 37 sophomores, juniors and seniors on Friday nights when the Knights take the field Aug. 30 in Braidwood against Reed-Custer.

"We have right around 50 kids, which is decent," Schneeman said. "You always wish there were more, but we're good with 50.

"We're junior- and senior-heavy, so this week is more about review. We have a lot of stuff in already, but today was good. We got a lot done."

— J.T. Pedelty

Marquette Crusaders

OTTAWA — It was back to work for the Marquette Academy Crusaders as they opened the first official day of practice on Monday on the practice field just west of Gould Stadium.

According to veteran head coach Tom Jobst, despite Mother Nature disrupting things a little with rain, his group was able to get in everything it wanted, and he was happy with Day 1 of the 2019 season.

"We were scheduled to go three hours, but with the threat of weather we decided to try and go for two hours, which were able to do," said Jobst, who begins his 10th year at MA and boosts a 71-27 record, including seven straight trips to the postseason. "We worked on offense and defense the first hour or so and then practiced a little on special teams and the kicking game.

"We were able to get a lot done, and I was happy with the day overall."

Marquette, which lost 13 players to graduation, finished 10-1 last season, falling to Dakota 14-12 in the second round of the Class 1A playoffs. In 2019, the Cru will be looking to capture their fifth consecutive Northern Athletic Conference title and seventh in the past eight years.

"We are right around 40, numbers-wise," said Jobst. "There have been a few years when we've had more out, but we have a couple of small classes going through right now. However, we have about 15 freshman out so that's nice to see. This senior group have been great leaders already, whether it be in the weight room or in summer camp.

"I'm really happy with how things went in the offseason and today."

Of the baker's dozen lost to Pomp and Circumstance for Marquette, a few skill position spots will have new faces this season, but Jobst fells, like in many previous seasons, he has players who will fill those positions well.

"We worked all summer, and Jay Scott and Luke Couch have both done a good job at the quarterback spot, and we have a couple freshmen that are pretty good too," Jobst said. "We also have a bunch of kids that are working hard at the running backs spots, so we'll just have to see how those spots shake out."

Marquette will begin its season at home with a curtain-raiser against Dwight on Friday, Aug. 30. The Cru will then venture to Seneca to battle the Fighting Irish in Week 2 on Sept. 6.

— Brian Hoxsey

FCW Falcons

FLANAGAN — As much as the 2019 season will be a season of newness for teams across the state, none is seeing more "new" than the Flanagan-Cornell/Woodland Falcons as the co-op joins the Illinois 8-Man Football Association under new head coach Todd Reed.

That "new" extended to the players at Monday night's first practice, as the Falcons had 23 come out to get ready for the Aug. 31 opener at Elgin Westminster Christian — including six seniors who were not members of last season's winless squad in traditional 11-man.

"The first day was good," said Reed. "We had 23 kids here tonight, and that's kind of what I was hoping for. I started our first night of camp with a scary feeling. I had a short amount of time to build relationships with the Woodland kids, and our first night of camp we had 12 kids here. By the last night of camp we were up to 17, and at the end of our workout nights we were up to about 22, which was awesome. ...

"It's Year 1 for a lot of them, but we're getting players to buy in."

Of the 23 players at practice Monday, there were 10 seniors, two juniors, four sophomores and an encouraging seven freshmen. The numbers sound low, but are in line with a lot of the 16 programs playing 8-man in 2019.

"That's what I keep telling the boys: With 8-man, it's going to be a whole new ballgame," Reed said. "We'll be playing against teams in the same situation as us.

"The maintenance guy got the field painted to the new 40-yard width, and we did a few drills, kickoff and cover, and the boys said it was definitely a little narrower, but they were having a lot of fun with it."

— J.T. Pedelty