After all of the waiting, we've reached the start of practices for the 2019 Illinois high school football season.
But just before practices begin, here are some of the storylines we've got our eyes on.
In Starved Rock Country, the opening day of practice will see numerous teams try to find their way without familiar faces to rely upon.
Both Minonk Fieldcrest and Ottawa Marquette will be looking to return to the playoffs despite losing key players — including featured running backs and starting quarterbacks — from last season’s successful teams to Pomp and Circumstance. This preseason will provide a final chance for the next men up to solidify their roles taking over.
Streator, Seneca, Flanagan-Cornell/Woodland and Ottawa are all looking to rebound after suffering through losing seasons … Ottawa (Interstate Eight) and Streator (Illinois Central Eight) trying to do so in new conferences in which they are now the largest members, meaning good turnout as practice officially begins Monday could permit them a nice advantage over their smaller conference foes from the get-go.
In the Morris area, Morris and Coal City begin their first season in new conferences - Morris moving into the Interstate Eight and Coal City beginning as part of the Illinois Central Eight.
Before league play starts, though, the Redskins and Coalers play each other in the opener and Coal City gets tested the next week as well, taking on Bishop McNamara. After finishing 2017 with a loss to Rochester in the Class 4A state title game, Morris missed the playoffs last season, going 4-5. The Redskins are hoping for a return to their more typical playoff form this season. Seneca will try to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2013. The Irish were just one win shy last year with a 4-5 mark..
Meanwhile, Minooka fielded a very young team last season and started 0-2 before winning seven straight and advancing to the playoffs before a first-round loss to Loyola Academy. The question this year is how will the Indians fare with all that experience coming back. Also, two new schools - Yorkville and West Aurora - join the Southwest Prairie Conference and both are in Minooka's division.
In DeKalb County, DeKalb takes the field with a new coach, looking for a seventh straight playoff berth. Keith Snyder takes over for Matt Weckler, who led the most successful stretch in school history. Before Weckler's arrival, DeKalb had made the playoffs just four times under the modern playoff format. The Barbs were 8-2 last year playing at 7A for the first time.
Since Snyder took over, he's been stressing competition with unique events, such as a combine for middle schoolers or a Barb Olympics to close the last day of summer practice.
In Kane County, Batavia is expected to field a ferocious defense. It has enough returning experience in the secondary and the linebacking corps to feel comfortable projecting the Bulldogs as legitimate DuKane conference contenders alone. Offensively, the Bulldogs have traditionally had top-flight attacks, but with varsity inexperience among the offensive line and whoever plays quarterback, the defense could have to carry it a bit until the offense catches up.
St. Charles East returns BJ Crossen at quarterback, but the graduation of running back Justin Jett looms large, despite missing him for injuries at points last year. Wisconsin commit Dylan Barrett will solidify an offensive line that graduated Justin Hull. Former linebacker Robert Carne graduated, so who assumes his over 100 tackle production has big shoes to fill.
St. Charles North will be out to prove its magical run through the state playoffs was not a fluke and it can contend again in 2019. It returns quarterback Kyler Brown and running back Nick DeMarco – two major pieces – but how it replaces the combined production from the graduations of Tyler Nubin, Alec Kritta and Gil Braglia will be very interesting.
Can Geneva and Burlington Central stop playoff droughts? Will St. Francis follow-up its playoff-bound season with another trip? Can Kaneland's possible running back-by-committee approach to replace Jonathan Alstott bring consistent results? Is Marmion quarterback Padraig Fitzgerald ready to assume the reins as a junior?
In Kendall County, conference shakeups in the Southwest Prairie and Interstate Eight, and the dissolving of the Northern Illinois Big 12 affects Yorkville, Plano, Sandwich, Oswego and Oswego East.
Yorkville, coming off its first playoff appearance since 2014, joins West Aurora as new entries in the Southwest Prairie Conference. The Foxes will be tested in the new league, but return quarterback Josh Beetham and South Dakota State recruit Cale Reeder.
Plano and Sandwich have a tough road to hoe as the two smallest members of the new-look I-8. Sandwich is coming off an encouraging 4-5 season, while Plano has brought aboard former Aurora University coach Rick Ponx has its new head coach.
Oswego, led by NIU-bound defensive lineman Jack Hugunin and wide receiver Jack Lemke, is going for its ninth straight SPC title.
In DuPage County, IC Catholic Prep is going for its fourth straight state championship – and it helps to return Kyle Franklin, who ran for a school record 2,378 yards and 37 touchdowns as a sophomore. Montini, which brings back Miami (Ohio) recruit Nate Muersch, looks to return to the state final after losing to Joliet Catholic in last year's Class 5A final.
In Cook County, defending Class 7A state champion Nazareth is loaded for another run at a state title, led by Michigan recruit J.J. McCarthy at quarterback, Tyler Morris at receiver and Ryan Keeler on the line. And Dan Hartman has switched sides in a rivalry in the West Suburban Conference, now at Lyons Township after five seasons as coach at Hinsdale Central.
In Sauk Valley, the Rock Falls Rockets start the season with a different coach for the third straight year, and there might be a new offensive style at Hinders Field. New coach Kevin Parker might elect to play a more Big Northern-style run game instead of the wide-open passing attack the Rockets have been running the past few seasons.
For the first time in four decades, the Newman Comets’ opening practice will be under the watchful eye of a new head coach, as Brandon Kreczmer takes over from the legendary Hall of Famer Mike Papoccia. Things probably won’t look too different, but it’ll be interesting to see if Papoccia wanders over to watch practice, as his house sits within view of the Newman practice field.
And anyone who wants to see something a little different could check out the Polo Marcos as they begin their inaugural season in 8-man football. The conditioning drills might look similar, but things will definitely change when the Marcos start installing plays and running their offense.