Coal City's Payton Hutchings returns for his third year as the starting quarterback for the Coalers.
Coal City's Payton Hutchings returns for his third year as the starting quarterback for the Coalers. — Shaw Media file photo

Coal City making the playoffs is as near to a certainty as it gets. The Coalers have been in the postseason in 28 of the past 31 years.

Coal City left the Interstate Eight Conference, along with Streator, Lisle, Reed-Custer, Wilmington, Manteno, Peotone and Herscher to form the Illinois Central Eight, and the Coalers look to be be the cream of the crop in the new league, especially with a wealth of talent returning from a team that went 10-2 last season.

The first two weeks - non-conference games against Morris and Bishop McNamara - will give them a pair of early tests.

Head coach: Dan Hutchings

Last year’s record: 10-2 (lost 17-14 to Richmond-Burton in Class 4A quarterfinals)

The big question: Can the defense compare to last season, when the Coalers posted six shutouts in their 12 games?

With defensive ends Brady Crawford and Jacob Jasnosz, linebackers Austin Pullara, Jack Bunton and Daniel Jezik and defensive backs Asa Cooper returning, the biggest question will be how they will fare in the middle of the defensive line.

Players to watch: TE/LB Austin Pullara, QB Payton Hutchings, RB/WR/DB Asa Cooper, RB/LB Daniel Jezik, TE/DE Brady Crawford.

2019 schedule analysis: Two of the biggest games on the schedule for the Coalers are right out of the gate. Coal City travels to Morris, which beat the Coalers 21-7 last year, to open the season before hosting Kankakee Bishop McNamara in Week 2. The conference schedule, now named the Illinois Central Eight, doesn't appear to be nearly as hard to navigate, until Week 8, when the annual showdown with neighboring Wilmington looms.

Newcomer you need to know: FB/DL Connor Best missed last football season with a foot injury and his return would give the Coalers the anchor on the defensive front they need, as well as another option in an already potent offense.

"Connor is healthy this year and ready to go," coach Dan Hutchings said. "Having him around will give us a lot more flexibility on the D-line and with our offense."

An early take: The Coalers will want to be ready early, as the two non-conference games will most likely pose the biggest challenges of the season. if they can win one or both of those games, then a banner year could be on the horizon. Even if they lose both, the Coalers will be battle-tested once the playoffs hit and they will be one of those teams that no one wants to see in Class 4A and could make another deep playoff run.