Lincoln-Way West players run hitting drills Monday in New Lenox during the first day of practice.
Lincoln-Way West players run hitting drills Monday in New Lenox during the first day of practice. — Geoff Stellfox for Shaw Media

A year ago, Joliet Catholic coach Jake Jaworski was simply trying to get his team on the correct path to get themselves back into the playoff fray.

Flash forward a year, and Jaworski is trying to plot the course to defending a Class 5A state championship trophy the Hilltoppers earned by downing Montini in the title game.

"It's definitely different," Jaworski said. "As long as they are keeping score and as long as there is a tournament, there's that prize at the end, and as a competitor you are hungry for each and every year. And I think our guys have taken that attitude, too."

But if the Hilltoppers are to mount a serious charge at defending that title, they will have to do so with a cast made up of almost entirely new regulars.

"It's exciting to a degree," Jaworski said. "We've got about 16 positions that we're replacing. But last year we did have some injuries and maybe some guys that weren't starters at the beginning of the year got some good quality reps."

One player who may finally get the chance to step into the spotlight is senior running back Kenyetta Williams. He contributed a bit as a sophomore, but Williams' junior season came to an abrupt end when he suffered a knee injury on the first offensive series for Joliet Catholic in Week 1. The injury sidelined him for the season.

"He's had a great summer, and we're kind of interested to see him take off," Jaworski said of Williams.

Joliet West

Midway through last season it appeared that Joliet West had turned a corner, as the Tigers had pieced together a three-game winning streak to pull to within a game of the .500 mark.

But the Tigers faltered in the final two games, including a disappointing loss to district rival Joliet Central to cap the campaign at 3-6.

"We reminded them of that all spring, we reminded them of that all summer," Joliet West coach Bill Lech said. "3-6 is unacceptable. But one of the things that we addressed beginning in January was improving our overall level of commitment, and improving our quality of character. We've worked on that, we've done a lot of character building and leadership development, because I thought that was something that we lacked."

Joliet Central

Coach Fredrick Gandy has a building project with the Steelmen, and by supplying the motto of "Brick by Brick" to his team, he knows laying down a foundation is critical.

Gandy takes the reins of the program from Brett Boyter, who stepped down at the conclusion of last season. Joliet Central finished last season 3-6, but played much improved football in the second half of the season, a feat made more impressive by the fact that the Steelmen consistently found themselves matched up with larger opponents.

That's not going to change this season either, as the Steelmen once again look to have one of the smaller rosters in the Southwest Prairie Conference. Adding to the complexity of the problem is that Gandy will likely be pressed into using several sophomores to fill gaps in the roster.

"We have to focus on the fundamentals, we're going to start with the basics and build from there," Gandy said. "Realizing that those young guys are going to make mistakes is going to be one of the hardest things, but I'm OK if they make those mistakes going full speed. They are just hustling, you don't have to a lot of talent to hustle and be aggressive."

Lincoln-Way West

The Warriors took substantial hits through graduation, but veteran coach Dave Ernst is excited about the youth movement that has been sparked by those vacancies.

"We could start as many as five sophomores," Ernst said. "And they are really good players, they belong here."

And the cupboard isn't completely bare in regards to experienced players either. The Warriors appear stacked with returning players at the skill positions as senior returners Billy Dozier and Caleb Marconi have both drawn Division I interest while junior returner Joel Madrigal is expected to do big things.

"They are special guys," Ernst said. "There's tools in the toolbox, we're not poor. We've always had really tough guys here, and this group is no different."

Lincoln-Way Central

It was a bit of a reunion for head coach Jeremy Cordell and his team, who takes a bit of a different approach to summer scheduling.

"We go pretty hard in late June and early July, so our break was a little bit longer," Cordell said. "We think you have to let kids be kids a little bit, too, so it was nice to get the family back together today."

The Knights were junior dominated in many roles last season, so now they have a strong foundation on which to build, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. That makes things easier on the installation side of things, but even without the experience returning, Cordell's transition into the season has been smooth.

"The more I do this, the more I feel like less is more," Cordell said. "I used to be a more is more guy. What I mean by less is more is that you can still get a ton done, you just do it more efficiently."