Lincoln-Way East's A.J. Henning
Lincoln-Way East's A.J. Henning — Shaw Media file photo

Now in its seventh season, the Red Grange Classic hosted by Wheaton Warrenville South has quickly become to preeminent offseason 7-on-7 event.

Friday’s event features 24 programs, many of which made deep playoff advancements last season, from around the state divided into four, six-team pools. Participating teams are Aurora Christian, Batavia, De La Salle, DeKalb, Glenbard North, Huntley, Kankakee, Lincoln-Way East, Maine South, Montini, Naperville Central, Naperville North, Neuqua Valley, Oswego East, Rochester, St. Charles East, St. Charles North, Simeon, Thornton, West Aurora, Wheaton North, Wheaton Warrenville South, Willowbrook and York.

The 7-on-7 tournament is the main focus of the event, but the Grange also hosts a lineman challenge to get everyone involved.

While there are literally hundreds of elements of interest that could be delved into in regards to the teams in the Grange, here’s a few points of interest to keep an eye on:

Is Lincoln-Way East’s A.J. Henning ready to go full blast heading into his senior season?

As a sophomore, Henning was an extremely important cog in Lincoln-Way East’s title run in 2017 in Class 8A, but injury limited him severely in 2018 so much so as he was a non-factor in the Griffins loss to Loyola in last year’s semifinal.

He seems to back to full strength, finishing fourth in the Class 3A state track meet in the 100 meters, and Henning on full-go is a frightening concept for opposing defenses. Even with the injury concerns, his recruiting prospects haven’t dimmed in the slightest as multiple major NCAA Division I schools have offers on the table.

What does West Aurora have in its bag of tricks for this year’s tournament?

West Aurora doesn’t appear on the surface to be the kind of team that would flourish in the Grange format. But while the Blackhawks have a base wing-T offense that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of airing it out if need be. The Blackhawks won last year’s weather shortened event and still have the components to air it out if need be.

Quarterback academy already has its general this time around

Rochester, which has a long history of cultivating quarterback play, entered last year’s Grange not entirely certain of who would hold the reins of the offense. That is clearly not an issue as senior-to-be Clay Bruno returns after throwing for nearly 3,000 yards last season in an offense that is always one of the more explosive you’ll find regardless of class.

Thornton is in a year of transition, how smooth will it be?

Thornton had a heartbreaking end to last season, falling one playoff point short of qualifying for the postseason, and having the indignity of being team number 257 in a field that only holds 256 teams. That is likely going to serve as fuel for the Wildcats, who will also go through a major transition in regards to their schedule moving from being a relatively small fish in the SouthWest Suburban pond, to a much larger one in the reformed Southland Conference.

Willowbrook’s time below the radar finally appears to be coming to an end

It has to finally be time to remove Willowbrook from the teams flying below the radar. Another deep playoff advancement last year ended in a narrow quarterfinal loss to Batavia and with run-pass quarterback threat Sam Tumilty still in the fold, this is the kind of format where the Warriors certainly have the tools to make their presence felt.

What does a Simeon team look like without Alante Brown?

The Wolverines were kings of the Chicago Public League last season after upending former kingpin Phillips in the regular season last year. A large reason for that was the play of explosive Alante Brown, who is now at Texas Tech. Simeon never seems to lack for explosive athletes, but the identities of some of them may be revealed at the Grange.

St. Charles North’s Class 7A title run wasn’t a fluke, the Stars aren’t likely going anywhere.

Those trying to dismiss the Stars run to the Class 7A state final last year as an aberration aren’t really paying attention. They still have nine starters returning from last year’s squad including quarterback Kyler Brown, who filled in admirably for his brother last season but is now running the show with experience under his belt.

The well in Batavia is not running dry any time soon.

The Bulldogs just keep churning out top talent and several pieces remain from last year’s team that simply find ways to win. With weapons like Art Taylor and Quinn Urwiler at their disposal, Batavia is looking very much like a team that will be ready for a brutal DuKane Conference slate and opener against downstate powerhouse East St. Louis.

Facts and Figures

What: 7th Annual Red Grange Classic

When: Friday, June 28, 9 a.m. start for pool play

Where: Wheaton Warrenville South High School

Pool A: De La Salle, Kankakee, Oswego East, Thornton, Wheaton Warrenville South, Willowbrook

Pool B: Batavia, Glenbard North, Montini, Naperville Central, Rochester, York

Pool C: Aurora Christian, Lincoln-Way East, Maine South, Naperville North, St. Charles East, West Aurora

Pool D: DeKalb, Huntley, Neuqua Valley, St. Charles North, Simeon, Wheaton North

A lineman’s challenge will also be conducted in conjunction with the 7-on-7, culminating in the Tug of War Championship held at 1 p.m.

7-on-7 pool play winners will advance to the semifinal round to be contested at 1:15 p.m. followed by the championship game at 2 p.m.