After 255 days, football is back.
And there isn't much that looks the same.
Nearly every conference in the area has undergone renovations, some more major than others. The new Little Okaw Valley is barely recognizable with twice as many teams from five different conferences, while the Apollo has just switched out Paris for Taylorville.
There's always optimism before the first snap, but there's plenty of intrigue added this year with some many unfamiliar elements. Here's what we can't wait to watch this season:
Unlike any season in the past decade, this season brings question marks. How will MacArthur and Eisenhower do in the Central State 8, how will Maroa-Forsyth and Monticello fare in the new (and, now, temporary) Okaw? Will Taylorville become a contender after being an also-ran recently in the Central State 8? Who will become a playoff contender in the Central Illinois Conference?
But none of the conference changes carry as much intrigue as the Little Okaw Valley Northwest. Teams from four different conferences making up the six-team division, and the two returning LOVC teams in the division – Cerro Gordo-Bement and Arthur-Lovington/Atwood-Hammond – experienced heavy turnover. Will Argenta-Oreana, despite heavy graduation losses, be the favorite coming out of the Okaw with a strong-arm quarterback in Keegan McHood? Will a young Sangamon Valley team hardened by its years in the Sangamo go from winless to a playoff team? Or will Tyler Schuring take the Knights to the next level as a senior? And what about CGB? The Broncos lost one of their best senior classes in program history, and rebuilding won't be easy in a suddenly tougher conference with Maroa-Forsyth looming in Week 9.
Play fast, year two
Mount Zion coach Mike Popovich's play fast style got off to a slow start last year, with the Braves losing their first four games. But as the year went on, Mount Zion showed flashes of how explosive it can be, and with quarterback Payton Grinestaff plus receivers Mason Bruce, Tyler Hayes and Max Gensler back this year, the Braves could be a potential breakout team.
The schedule will still be an issue. The Braves don't play a single team with a smaller enrollment, and their first four opponents – Mahomet-Seymour, Jerseyville, Mascoutah and Mattoon – are all significantly larger. Three of those teams --- Mahomet, Jerseyville and Mattoon – were playoff teams last year. Replacing Highland with Mascoutah (3-6 last year) is an improvement from last year's schedule, but Taylorville is a much bigger obstacle than Paris in Apollo play.
While Mount Zion's offense brings optimism, an improved defense will be the key. Playing fast skews the numbers some because it means more possessions for both teams, but allowing more than five touchdowns per game (35.5 points) won't bring the Braves back to the playoffs.
Final chapter for Hockaday
With recruitment out of the way – he's headed to Iowa – all Maroa-Forsyth quarterback Jack Hockaday has to worry about is playing his senior year. One of the state's best players is a big reason so many are calling the Trojans a favorite in Class 1A despite 14 key players graduated.
The rushing game that had some youth should bring a bit more of punch this year as the Trojans return junior Chad Howell (47 carries, 295 yards) and Hockaday (85 carries, 609 yards). The question marks begin in the receiving corp. Drew Fredericksen, Clayton Zilz, Josh Ratts and Alec Martin made up 95 percent of the receiving yardage from last year and all four are gone. Hockaday's talented enough to make an athletic player into a good receiver, but those names will have to emerge from 7-on-7s and practice.
That passing game is something to keep an eye on if you love history. For his career, Hockaday has 4,603 yards so far and could position himself as one of the most prolific passers in the H&R area. It's likely that he'll pass third-place and Tuscola's John Wienke (6,070 yards) by the season's end, but it becomes interesting at the No. 2 spot. If Hockaday throws for 2,219 yards this year he'll pass older brother Luke and his 6,822 career yards. It's a long shot to catch the 7,526 career mark by Tuscola's Dusty Burk.
From the time Tuscola coach Rick Reinhart put him in late in at quarterback his freshman season, it was apparent Nick Bates was going to be a star player.
After a sophomore year in which Bates made his presence felt in all three sports he plays – football, basketball and baseball – this is the season Bates becomes a star. He's potentially the best player in the Central Illinois Conference in football this season after passing for 1,161 yards and 11 touchdowns as a sophomore.
Though Tuscola lost some key players from last year's resurgent Warriors team that ended its playoff drought at one season, Bates will have the weapons around him – Josh Knight, Zach Bates and Cole Evans among them – to make Tuscola one of the best teams in the new conference and earn himself plenty of individual accolades as well.
Old face in a new place
Charlie Brown's 13-32 record in five years at Sullivan-Okaw Valley doesn't indicate how far the program came in his time there.
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Brown stepped aside this year and – as athletic director -- brought in a Hall of Fame coach to take Sullivan the rest of the way. Gerald Temples, who has a 152-88 career record in 24 years of coaching, is 62, but he led Arcola to the playoffs as recently as 2010. In his 11 seasons at Mattoon, he went 62-48 while the Green Wave played in the Big 12. After Temples left, Mattoon went 8-28 in the Big 12 before leaving for the Apollo.
In addition to the new coach, Sullivan has a significantly easier schedule this year in the Central Illinois Conference, with Maroa-Forsyth, Monticello and Tolono Unity off the schedule and replaced with Hoopeston, Mount Olive and Warrensburg-Latham. Plus, Sullivan brings back a strong core led by quarterback Nick Frerichs and receiver Joe Jeffers. Sullivan is looking to make its first playoff appearance since 2001.
Since Cully Welter came to Monticello in 2009, he's commanded teams buoyed by defense and rushing the ball. That may change this year.
After running backs Ryan Donohue and Dylan Knisley were the dominant offensive forces for the Sages the past several years, Monticello might have a quarterback in waiting. Brandon Wildman showed potential last year, and may bring more balance.
In Week 7, the now-junior put up 105 yards on 6-for-12 passing against Tolono Unity before following that performance with 10-for-16 for 148 yards and two touchdowns against Shelbyville. He struggled against St. Teresa in Week 9 (3-for-11), but did lace a pass 30 yards through the air between two defenders for a touchdown in the first quarter.
The 6-foot-3 quarterback certainly has the size to fill the position. But to flourish early on he'll likely need a complementary running back, and Clay Becker has a good chance to come away with the job. Becker's a little taller than Donohue or Knisley and showed in the playoff game against St. Thomas More – five carries for 44 yards – that he has the speed and strength for the spot.
Cerro Gordo-Bement has ridden star power to three straight playoff appearances and three playoff wins, but this year the Broncos will have to either establish some new stars, or find a way to win without them.
From Cody Woollen to Dee Woods and Steve Isbell, Andy Kerley's teams have ridden their running backs to a 27-6 record the last three years with a 24-game regular season winning streak and 17-game Little Okaw Valley Conference run.
Isbell and Woods graduated after last year's 11-1 Class 2A quarterfinal season, as did quarterback Cole Blickensderfer, receivers Josh Hayes and Ethan Morton, and linebacker Jay Woods.
The Broncos have the pieces to start over in speedy receiver/cornerback Gage Fowler, running back/linebacker Chase McNamara and linemen Brant Knowles, Ben Peters and Jerome Schneider. But someone will likely have to become a star if CGB wants to continue its winning ways in the new LOVC Northeast.
Robinson found an explosive running back last year who helped continue Robinson's resurgence under coach Tim Nolen.
Behind 1,330 yards and 14 touchdowns on just 138 carries last year, the Maroons had their best season (8-3) since 2000. No doubt, Richart ran behind a powerful offensive line and great blocking halfbacks, but once the senior reached the second level he was excellent in reading safeties to force plenty of missed tackles. And even if a defender gets a hand on him, he can power through it without losing too much speed.
Richart isn't alone as a returning player in the Robinson backfield. Fellow running back Joe Smith (500 yards, 6 TDs) and quarterback Bucky Stevens also return as the Maroons try to get over a couple more humps this year. A win against Casey – a team Robinson hasn't defeated since joining the Little Illini – would be a huge step.
Who will emerge as the top rusher?
With six of the top eight area backs graduated, there will be plenty of new names atop the rushing leaders' list.
Robinson's Jason Richart (1,330 yards) and Charleston's Myles Decker (1,317) are two that have shown that they're capable of big years and are coming back for their senior season.
Then there's the group of MacArthur's Jaquay Owens (905), Arthur-Lovington-Atwood-Hammond's Tyler Schuring (805), Effingham's Zach Miller (794) and Pana's Paul Rhodes (713).
But there's easily a chance an unknown name enters the fold. The traditionally run-heavy teams like Monticello, Cerro Gordo-Bement, Nokomis and Casey-Westfield are all seeking new lead rushers. Or someone could flourish behind an experienced offensive line -- St. Teresa, Tuscola and Shelbyville all return multiple linemen.