With the 2019 season completed, Friday Night Drive is taking a look ahead at 2020. Who are the teams with plenty to gain next season? Perhaps there is a team that showed a spark, but 2020 will be the year.
In other words, don't be surprised to see these teams at or near the top of the standings next season.
Burlington Central (Jake Bartelson)
I said it on our podcasts over-and-over again, but Burlington Central legimately believes the program is set to turn the corner. I'm buying what coach Brian Melvin and Rocket Hill is selling.
The Fox Valley Conference certainly is a gauntlet, and while the Rockets only won three games last season, I suspect another solid offseason is in store. Burlington Central should return sophomore standout running back Gavin Sarvis, who accumulated 834 total yards from scrimmage and 10 total touchdowns. Mark Ganziano should also return for his senior season at quarterback.
The Rockets' defense lose some high-profile pieces in Jake Lenschow, Connor Hodgson, Nathan Arians and Matt Muetterties to graduation for next season. But, they should also return Shawn Adkerson, who had 41 tackles and six quarterback pressures last season as a sophomore to help lessen the blow from graduated production.
I'm a big believer in putting stock into team culture, and the one Melvin and his staff is building is an up-and-coming one. The playoffs has eluded BC for the past five seasons. That has always been their goal to break the streak, but a 31-30 win over Jacobs last season showed it has potential to compete.
Hiawatha (Eddie Carifo)
By dropping down, the Hiawatha football team may actually be on the rise next year.
The program has certainly been ascendant the past four years, going from a multitude of winless and one-win seasons to playoff eligibility each year.
But in 2020, the Hawks will drop down to eight-man football. So while they lose a lot of talent from this year's club that won its first playoff game since 1987 and beat Marquette for the first time, they should be competitive playing at eight-man.
While Kyle Thompson and the records he set have moved on, quarterback Matt Korb returns, as does the team's second-leading receiver, Austin Brantley. Leading tackler Jacob Smith is also back, while Brantley was fourth on the team in tackles.
Josue Rubio also showed flashes of brilliance through the year and could be called upon in a bigger, more sustained role.
Lockport (Steve Soucie)
Lockport has qualified for the playoffs just once in the past eight seasons.
But the Porters made great strides toward reversing that disturbing trend with a solid season in 2019.
It ended with a 4-5 record and no playoff berth, but tremendous progress was made by the Porters and featured a win over a playoff-qualifier Andrew late in the season.
A coaching change was made to veteran coach George Czart at the beginning of the 2019 season and Czart has a bit of a history with both Lockport and building programs.
Czart was an assistant coach at Lockport during the school's great run at the beginning of the century where the Porters won back-to-back state titles in 2002 and 2003. He then went onto build a program at Lincoln-Way North, building a team that had turned into a force before the school consolidated, which left Czart without a head coaching post.
Czart waited for the right opportunity to jump back in and believed Lockport was the right place to do so.
The program seemed to agree with his assessment as they were likely only an ambition nonconference scheduled game away from a playoff berth and with some very strong returning components and great success at the lower levels Lockport could continue climbing the ladder of success in 2020.
Oswego (Josh Welge)
Oswego has won at least nine games and reached the playoffs' second round in all eight seasons under Brian Cooney, so to call the Panthers a team on the rise might not do the program justice.
Still, though, watch out for the Panthers.
Oswego will certainly be motivated. Minooka ended Oswego's supremacy atop the Southwest Prairie Conference after a decade. The Panthers lost in double overtime to Bolingbrook to end the season. Several key pieces should put them right back in position.
Matt Egly and Anthony Cikauskas, who combined for 15 sacks, return on the defensive line, Oswego's best unit in 2019. Also back will be middle linebacker Evan Brown, Oswego's leading tackler, and fellow linebacker Jacob Garlick. Nick DeMarco, who made several big plays on the back line, returns to lead Oswego's secondary.
Offensively, Cole Pradel will be back for his second season at quarterback. He threw for 1,732 yards and 19 touchdowns as a junior, and also ran for 358 yards and seven TDs. Joining him will be Nick Hampton, Oswego's second-leading receiver in 2019. Jacob Sergen, one of several to rotate at running back as a sophomore, should be the featured back. He'll be running behind a line that will return Otto Hess and Aidan Tweety.
Add it all up, expect Oswego to be back in the mix atop the SPC, and right back in the Class 8A playoffs.
Fulton (Ty Reynolds)
After consecutive 5-5 seasons, the Fulton Steamers are poised to make quite a bit of noise in the Three Rivers Rock next season. The Steamers return eight starters on offense and nine on defense, and bring back 97.7% of their rushing yards and 70.4% of their passing yards from 2019.
Quarterback Connor Barnett, who threw for 1,077 yards, 8 TDs and 9 INTs on 88-for-161 passing last season, will be back behind center, and Fulton's top two rushers, Ethan Rash (172 rushes, 991 yards, 16 TDs) and Kyler Pessman (98 rushes, 561 yards, 8 TDs), will be third-year starters as seniors in 2020. Pessman (31 catches, 397 yardsm 3 TDs) was also Barnett's top target last season.
Defensively, the Steamers will bring back 7 of their front 8 for their 4-4-3 scheme, and will have 7 of their top 9 tacklers back in the fold.
Fulton has made the playoffs 5 of the last 6 seasons, with a trip to the quarterfinals in 2016 their best postseason showing under 13-year head coach Patrick Lower. The Steamers won 1A state titles under 18-year coach Jim Proud in 1976 and 1991, and had back-to-back semifinal appearances in 1999 and 2000.