COAL CITY — Last season, the Coal City football team lost the first and last games it played. In between those two losses was a 10-game winning streak, which included six shutouts.
With a bulk of the front seven returning from that defense, the Coalers have high hopes entering the 2020 season.
"The goal for this group is to win a state title," said defensive end Brady Crawford after Monday's first practice of the season. "We have a lot of talent coming back from last year and we feel like we have some unfinished business after losing [17-14 to Richmond-Burton] in the quarterfinals last year."
Crawford will be one of the defensive mainstays for the Coalers, as he returns as a defensive end and has already committed to play for Sioux Falls University next season.
"We feel like we have some unfinished business from last year," said quarterback Payton Hutchings, who will be entering his third season as the starting signal-caller for the Coalers. The left-handed thrower will continue his athletic career next year as a member of the University of Illinois baseball team. "It felt good today to get back on the football field with everyone together. We are pretty close as a group.
"I would say, because we are so close, that chemistry is one of the big strengths of this team. We all are out there playing for each other."
Tight end/linebacker Austin Pullara is also entering his third year as a starting varsity player, and he likes what he sees from this group of players.
"We have a lot of guys coming back, especially on defense," Pullara said. "Having a lot of experienced guys will help a lot. Plus, we get [defensive lineman] Connor Best back. He missed all of last year with an injury and he give us another guy up front to take up blockers and let us linebackers make plays."
The starting linebacking corps of Pullara, Jack Bunton and Daniel Jezik all return from last season. Bunton is currently nursing a broken foot, but he expects to be ready to play in the season opener at Morris on Aug. 30. Jezik, the defending Class 2A 182-pound wrestling state champion, also saw significant time at running back last season and figures to be the top ball-carrier this season as well.
"It's nice to have so much talent returning," Coal City coach Dan Hutchings said. "We have some spots to fill in the secondary, but hopefully our front seven will be able to put enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks that it will help the secondary. That's the plan, anyway."
Any questions the Coalers have about their team should be answered after a tough two-game stretch to open the season that will see them travel to Morris before playing Kankakee Bishop McNamara at home in Week 2.
"It will be a tough two weeks to open the season, for sure," Dan Hutchings said. "But, that's why we scheduled two strong programs like that. They will definitely let us know where we need work. We enjoy playing quality programs like those two. They are two of the best programs around, and we enjoy the challenge of playing them."
Coach Hutchings said that the numbers are good in the Coaler program, with 66 players out between all levels and around 40 juniors and seniors for the varsity squad.
"We have a lot of guys that got a lot of time last year as juniors, and quite a few dressed as sophomores, too. Plus we have Payton and Austin, who started every game their sophomore and junior years.
"We are excited to get back on the field and try to make ourselves better. We know that we have to come ready to play each week. Our conference [Illinois Central Eight] will be physical every week and there is no game we can take lightly. Right now, we are just glad to be together and on the field as a team again."