By Matt Nestor
Prep Sports Reporter
Another football season is about to begin. There are a lot of changes around the NIC-10, and questions will be answered fast.
At Rockford Boylan Catholic, there is a new coach and a lot of new players for the two-time defending state champions. After the first two weeks against fellow conference favorites Rockton Hononegah and Machesney Park Harlem, we will know the effects of those changes.
After that, first or second place in the conference may not be determined until week six when Harlem travels to Hononegah. But there will be plenty of great match-ups in between to keep people entertained.
New turf fields are at Rockford Guilford and Rockford Auburn, who share fields with Rockford East and Rockford Jefferson. So, four of the conference members will have a new field to play on.
In addition, there will be four new coaches in the conference. One of those coaches is a current state champion, Dan Appino, who left Boylan’s conference record winning streak to head over to Auburn and their multi-year losing streak.
In addition, you have Patrick Babcock at Jefferson, Rich Turner at Belvidere North, and John Cacciatore at Boylan. So, there will also be a lot of unfamiliarity from week to week.
A quick glance at each conference team:
Freeport will be replacing a record-setting quarterback, Alex Bennett, who is gone to graduation.
“A guy with Alex’s talent and experience is always going to be difficult to replace,” Head Coach Aaron Wichman said. “We’ll probably have a little bit of a different look, but we feel like we have some guys back there that can handle it.”
Wichman said the Pretzels are looking to get back into the playoffs this year after just missing last year. They have a hungry group of seniors who are hoping to build off a late upset of Hononegah and make a run.
“We’ve got a great bunch of seniors this year, we have 25 seniors that are out,” he said. “They’ve really bought in to what we’ve tried to do. These seniors are pretty determined.”
The Jefferson J-Hawks improved their record to 4-5 last year. Despite having to start with a new coach in Babcock, the J-Hawks are not looking to take any steps back this year.
“As we put in a new offense and a new defense, we want to make sure we don’t lose sight of what our identity had become,” Babcock said. “We want to make sure we stay a physical football team.”
The former Stillman Valley stand-out said the offense has been the hardest thing to install. He said the defense will look similar to what they played in the past, but the offense will take some time to gel.
“The offense usually lags behind the defense,” he said. “You can get by on defense by just playing with emotion. Offense is more about execution, so that has been the harder one to get going.”
Boylan has to replace their coach and a large group of starters from their two-time defending state championship teams. But with the cupboards full of talent, no one will feel sorry for new coach John Cacciatore, who was promoted from the sophomore level.
One of the hardest things for Cacciatore will be replacing all-conference quarterback LaMont Toney. Senior Jake Sheley and junior Brock Stull are battling for the starting spot right now.
“Between the two of them, no one has stepped up and taken the job for themselves,” Cacciatore said. “We had some success in 2010 with two quarterbacks. Some people will say if you have two quarterbacks, you don’t have one. But we don’t think it will be a disadvantage.”
One player who will help ease concerns at the quarterback position will be senior running back DeMarcus Vines. The speedster is likely the fastest player in the conference, and possibly the most talented as well. Cacciatore said they will lean on him heavily.
“I’m not doing my job if I don’t,” he said. “He is a pretty special player. You only need a crack for him to go a long way, and we’re looking to put him in all those cracks inside and out.”
He also knows there will be a large target on this team, and he hopes the players will respond accordingly.
“With success, you assume there will be more success,” Cacciatore said. “So, getting the kids to understand that someone is dying to get them with that target.”
The Guilford Vikings struggled last year with injuries as they saw the conference’s longest playoff streak come to an end. They are hoping a different look will get them back in to the playoffs this year.
Quarterback Nick Hyatte was a small part of the Guilford offense last year that revolved around Dontrell Chance. This year, coach Mel Gilfillan is looking to unleash him on the conference.
“This kid is the best quarterback we’ve had in my 12 years here,” Gilfillan said. “He grew an inch and gained 20 pounds. He’s 6-2, 197 pounds, an honor student. If there is a better athlete in the NIC-10 than Nick Hyatte, I’d like to see it.”
In addition, the Vikings will boast another strong run game led by fullback Justin Carroll, a 215-pound fullback with halfback speed, and an attacking defense that will be led by senior D.J. Mack.
“This senior class has been one of the hardest working, and we’re loaded at the skill positions,” Gilfillan said. “This team will surprise some people.”
Troy Vandenbroek seems as though he has been playing quarterback for the Belvidere Bucs forever. He returns for his fourth and final year as the starter, and coach Matt Weckler is expecting big things from him.
“It’s great to have a quarterback return, whether its a two-year, three-year, or for us, a four-year starter,” he said. “We’re giving Troy a little more opportunities this year. We’ll let him run it a little more and at the same time, we’re giving him a little more leeway at the line of scrimmage to change plays and see what the defense is doing.”
The Bucs topped an up-and-down season with a near upset of top seeded Kaneland in the 5A playoffs. Some key players will be gone from that team, but Weckler thinks junior Maurice Jackson can fill several holes by himself.
“We need him this year to replace Marcus Gooden and Kyle Harris,” he said. “Him being a junior and playing a lot last year, we feel he is the closest guy we have that can do that.”
The Rockford East E-Rabs have been close to a breakthrough the last two years under coach Jeremy Warren. Close is no longer good enough for the E-Rabs.
“When you’re trying to build a program, you have to win some of those close games,” Warren said. “Close isn’t good enough, and we need to close the gap from a competitive standpoint.”
Some familiar names are gone for East this year, most notably quarterback Andrew Lantz. But with participation continuing to rise and more players having come up under their system, Warren said now is the time to strike.
“We have to win a game people don’t expect you to win and kids will get confidence after that,” he said.
New coach Dan Appino had one of the most disciplined football teams in the state while he was at Boylan. His first order of business at Rockford Auburn is to try to get to the same place.
“Those things have been points of emphasis,” Appino said. “Our daily regimen is working on ball security, the discipline of the kids while they are in their stance. We’ve thinned our schemes out so we can work on being in the right place.”
Aside from uniforms, Appino is hoping the final product will look similar to what he has had for years. While wins may take time to come, he knows his new program can and will be able to do all the things he liked to do at Boylan.
“We’re going to spread the field and try to create horizontal and vertical running lanes for our kids by making them defend from sideline to sideline,” he said. “It’s going to be a running attack, and that is what we prefer it to be.”
The other key will be cutting down on mental errors. He said if they can do that, the improvement will be noticeable from day one.
“We need to minimize mistakes and turnovers,” Appino said. “The past few years when we’ve played Auburn, those are the things they haven’t done well.”
According to the media guide, the Hononegah Indians only have two returning starters. But that is a misleading number.
The Indians played a lot of juniors last year. While some may not have started, they still saw the field plenty.
“On the defensive side of the ball, we got a lot of young kids experience with a lot of juniors playing,” coach Tim Sughroue said. “It’s nice that we had a number of kids that didn’t necessarily start every game, but have that varsity experience.”
Another returning player who is not listed as a returning starter is quarterback Joey Welsh. There was a lot of uncertainty at the position last season, but when Welsh was called upon, he played well.
“We feel solid with Joey Welsh,” Sughroue said. “He’s a senior coming back, and he started three games last year and finished strong.”
Hononegah is typically a grind-it-out kind of team on offense, but an influx of talent is going to make them much more diverse on the offensive side of the ball.
“We feel this year that we have more big-play players than we have ever had,” Sughroue said. “Alex Martin from Missouri is a guy who was one of the top runners in the 100-yard dash. Darwyn White is a transfer from Boylan; he’s a big player that can make big plays. Jake Wilson is another one of those kids that can take it to the house every play.”
The Harlem Huskies have been a well-oiled machine the last few years, rolling right along with the same scheme even as players graduated.
This year, while they still hope to have that high-octane offense, it is going to look completely different than what people are used to seeing from the Huskies.
“We’re incorporating a tight end, more two-back sets,” Head Coach Jim Morrow said. “We like the adaptations we’ve made to the player personnel, and I think we can score some points.”
Star linebacker A.J. Wentland will play tight end in addition to linebacker. And despite having a string of excellent quarterbacks, Morrow thinks they may have still improved the position.
“Quite possibly we could see the best quarterback yet in Justin Van Wambeke,” Morrow said. “He probably doesn’t realize it yet. He gives us some mobility we haven’t had. We’ve seen him in camps throwing against scholarship quarterbacks, and he looks just as good, if not better.”
New coach Rich Turner has coached at the highest level of high schools in Ohio and in the talent-rich state of Florida. So, he comes with a high pedigree.
That will come in handy as he takes over a young Belvidere North team looking to rebound after back-to-back disappointing seasons.
“We have a lot of kids that want to hit, but not a lot with experience,” Turner said. “We have a lot of underclassmen starting, we may have up to five sophomores starting.”
In the past, the Blue Thunder has had a high-powered offense built around Austin Smaha. But with Smaha gone, there is opportunity for other players.
Last year’s quarterback, Justin Ellingson, will move to running back this year. It’s a move that Turner said the senior has accepted and thrived in.
Turner said he thinks the offense will keep some of its potency from the past. That leaves a porous defense for the new coach to try to improve.
“We’ve really focused on fundamentals,” Tuner said of the defensive side of the ball. “We hope that if we tackle better, we’ll be better on defense.”
From the Aug. 22-28, 2012, issue