MINOOKA — Last season, with a starting team composed mostly of juniors, the Minooka football team went through some growing pains early, starting the season 0-2 before rebounding to win its final seven to finish the regular season at 7-2 and qualifying for the Class 8A playoffs before an opening-round loss to Loyola Academy.
This year, under second-year head coach John Belskis, that group comes back as seniors, and with a different plan in mind.
"We had some growing pains early last year and started 0-2," Belskis said. "Hopefully, that experience pays off this year and we can improve on what we did."
Belskis noted that with all the experience returning from last season; he and his staff have spent much less time teaching the Indians' system and more time working on execution.
"We took full advantage of our 25 contact days during the summer," he said. "The kids keep getting better. There's not really a sense of urgency, but we are able to keep practices to two or two and a half hours instead of three hours.
"The kids have really bought in to what we are doing and why we are doing it. Right now, we are working on getting in shape to play four quarters of football."
With the addition of Yorkville and West Aurora to the Southwest Prairie Conference, the Indians were put in the East Division of the conference, in which five of the six teams were playoff qualifiers last season.
"There are no games we can look past on our schedule," Belskis said. "Also, the last couple of years, I think we kind of snuck up on some people. This year, we aren't going to be able to do that. We are going to have a target on our back. That's a good place to be, because it means we are a pretty good football team."
Leading the offense will be returning quarterback Seth Lehr and running back/receiver Connor Etzkorn.
"Connor battled a hip injury most of last year, but he is fully healthy this year," Belskis said. "He is a very versatile weapon for us. He's one of those kids you can put anywhere on the field. Running back, receiver, defensive back. He is what we call a program kid. He is more interested in what helps the team win rather than his own numbers.
"Seth Lehr, if he was 6-2 or 6-3, would be getting a lot of looks from big schools. He has a great football IQ and knows the offense inside and out. He knows not just what he's supposed to do, but what everyone is supposed to do. It's almost like having a coach out there on the field, and that's a huge help."
Belskis looks for the offensive line to be anchored by tackle Jake Shipla (6-3, 280) and center Ryan Doody, both returning starters from last season.
Shipla will also be a mainstay on defense, where he registered 21 tackles for loss and 10 sacks last season. Other returning defensive players to watch are linebacker Tommy Burrs and defensive back Steve Gonzalez.
"This team has great chemistry," Belskis said. "They get along well. That can take you a long way in this game.
"It is also [assistant coach] Terry McCombs' 50th year of coaching and it may be his last year. The kids really enjoy being around him and I think they would like to send him out on a high note."