DECATUR — The stage has been set.
While there were plenty of memorable moments in 2017 Herald & Review-area sports — MacArthur's upset win against Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin in football, Effingham St. Anthony's state title in basketball among them — much of what happened was primer for 2018.
The effect of the Illinois men's basketball team's coaching change, and the landing of top recruit Ayo Dosunmu, will be felt much more in 2018. Same with Millikin's hire of Mark Scherer as men's basketball coach.
There will be a lot to prove. Will Illini football start showing signs of turnaround in Lovie Smith's third season? Can the Brummett twins follow up the success they had on the football field with a postseason run in basketball? Can Jacardia Wright lead St. Teresa back to state football as a senior?
Like always in sports, there will be wins and losses. But, either way, it will be a fun ride.
Here's a look at the upcoming year in H&R-area sports:
Back to prominence?
So far there's been plenty to like in Underwood's first season as Illini coach. Illinois is off to a 10-5 start, including a memorable Braggin' Rights game win against Missouri.
Even the losses have been exciting, if sometimes frustrating. They've been a more dynamic team on both sides of the ball than they were under previous coach John Groce.
But dynamic play won't mean much if Underwood can't get the Illini back to the NCAA Tournament. For that to happen, Illinois will have to have success in Big Ten play. The Illini are already 0-2 in conference, with overtime losses to Maryland and Northwestern. But the Big Ten schedule starts in earnest in January, and Illinois will likely need at least 10 Big Ten wins to make the tournament — not an easy task in what appears to be a deep conference.
A trip to the NCAA Tournament this year would bode well for next season, when Dosunmu arrives on campus. If freshmen Mark Smith and Trent Frazier continue to develop, the addition of Dosunmu, who has put up 50- and 60-point games this year at the high school level, could vault the Illini to a level not seen since 2005.
Will there be progress?
It wasn't easy to watch Illinois football this season. A young team that began the year by showing some promise was decimated by injuries. The Illini lost their last 10 games in Lovie Smith's second season as head coach.
Illinois played more freshmen than any team in the country. That should make for a better 2018, when those now-experienced players are bigger and stronger, and are being pushed by another promising recruiting class.
2018 maybe a little soon to expect the Illini to reach a competitive level in the Big Ten, but if Smith's rebuild is working, they'll look better and win more games than in a forgettable 2017.
After some lean years in both football and men's basketball, Millikin has reason to be optimistic in both sports for the first time in years.
The Millikin football team, under second-year head coach Dan Gritti, went 7-3 — its best record since 2003. And that was with a young team. An NCAA Playoffs appearance for the first time since 2000 is a realistic goal for 2018.
The men's basketball team, off to an 8-4 start under Scherer, still has to go through the CCIW gauntlet, but should easily have its best record since the 2008-09 season, when the Big Blue went 16-9.
Keeping the streak alive
Though MacArthur and Eisenhower's football teams can't ever seem to put things together in the same year, it has been a good run, with at least one of the two city public schools advancing to the playoffs in each of the last five years — a first in city public school history.
It might be tough to make it six. Eisenhower will be replacing coach Drew Wagers, who led the Panthers to their only back-to-back playoff appearances in school history. And MacArthur will graduate a standout senior class that includes the Brummett twins.
Still, don't count out the Generals — they've made the playoffs six times in Derek Spates' 11 years as coach, more than any other coach in Decatur Public Schools history.
In basketball, the future looks bright for Eisenhower, which has freshman R.J. Walker already contributing and help on the way next season in Johns Hill eighth-grader Brylan Phillips.
MacArthur, meanwhile, is hoping for a memorable finish to the Brummett twins' careers. After helping turn the football team's fortunes around this year and winning a playoff game for the Generals, they're shooting for some twin magic on the basketball court as well.
One more chance
St. Teresa's Jacardia Wright has already had a legendary career at St. Teresa, taking the Bulldogs to state as a sophomore and winning the last two H&R Macon County Player of the Year Awards.
Individually, he'll finish as one of the state's most prolific running backs ever as far as yards gained and touchdowns scored. But Wright wants the one thing that's eluded him — a state title. The Bulldogs fell a game short his sophomore year and were knocked off in the second round of the playoffs this year. With St. Teresa returning quarterback Jack Hogan and several other key contributors, Wright may have the cast around him it'll take to reach his goal.
If St. Teresa does make state, it's likely the Bulldogs will again have company. Maroa-Forsyth will be shooting for its third straight trip to state and eighth in the last 13 years. As usual, the Trojans will have star players to replace, but they return quarterback Ian Benner and — as usual — have a team full of players ready to fill shoes.
After bursting on the scene last year with state medals, Eisenhower's Martin twins — Tina and Katina — could add to that haul this year in the sprint events at the state track meet.
The Martins aren't the only 2017 stars ready to make more news in 2018. Both St. Anthony and Monticello — state teams in boys basketball last year — have what it takes to make return trips. T-Town baseball, like Maroa football, is a perennial state title contender. And Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond's Logan Hall is a threat to win state in both the 1,600 and 3,200 at state track.