By Matt Nestor
Prep Sports Reporter
If you ask anyone who will win the NIC-10 in football this season, most people will give you the stock answer: Rockford Boylan.
If you talk to those close to the conference, though, you could get a different answer. You may get Boylan … but you may also get Rockton Hononegah … or Machesney Park Harlem … or Belvidere North … or Rockford Auburn … or Rockford Guilford.
More so than any time in the last 15 years, the conference appears to be wide open. You could have a conference champion with one loss, maybe even two.
One of those teams listed above could end up with five or six losses. Much like Stillman Valley last year in the Big Northern West, you could see a second- or third-place team in the NIC-10 end up making the best run in the playoffs.
First things first, and make no mistake, Boylan is the favorite in the conference. Until someone beats them, they have earned that right. You win that many games in a row in a conference, and the only reason you pick against them is for shock factor.
The Titans have the best player in the conference in University of Minnesota-bound quarterback Demry Croft. He made so many incredible plays last year as a junior, and you have to imagine he has improved.
But the fans of other schools see cracks in the armor. There was a close call against Hononegah, saved by costly fumbles by the Indians. There was a miracle comeback by Croft against Belvidere North. Harlem, Belvidere and Auburn all had chances in the second half before falling. And the lower levels at Boylan struggled like never before.
Of course, if you had to pick one team to unseat the Titans, Hononegah would be it. They have been their most consistent challenge. Hononegah has a great program in place, but they do have a lot of talent to replace, including all-conference running back Alex Martin.
Harlem has had their opportunities as well, having several halftime leads over Boylan. They are working in a lot of young talent, but talent is certainly not the issue there.
Auburn has been building a steady program under coach Dan Appino. After making the playoffs in his first season, the Knights came up short last year with several heartbreaking losses. But they return several key players, and have a dynamite sophomore class coming up.
Belvidere North has become a sleeper pick by many. They return 10 starters on offense, and seven on defense. They also had Boylan on their last chance, when Croft saved them with back-to-back great plays to set up a touchdown in the last minute. But that close call has the Blue Thunder thinking big.
Guilford is almost the forgotten school, despite being one of the most consistent programs. They have, perhaps, the best player other than Croft coming back in quarterback Nino Musso, who gives the Vikings a dimension they have lacked for many years. And they finished the conference 7-2 last season, knocking off Harlem and perhaps being the most ready team to make a leap.
That is six teams vying for a conference title, and that is not touching on Belvidere and Freeport, and all of their history, or East and Jefferson, programs that have struggled but have seemed close to turning a corner the last few years.
The NIC-10 has become one of the toughest conferences in the state. Boylan has a murderer’s row, kicking off the season with Auburn, Hononegah, Harlem and Guilford. And they have Belvidere North late. The Titans could almost win the conference in the first half of the season, or see their win streak end and perhaps start a losing streak.
So many outcomes are in play for this conference season. It may end the way we are all used to, with the Titans standing tall at 9-0 entering the playoffs. But more than any other season during their streak, it feels like there is a possibility that won’t happen. And that there could be exciting nights all over the conference this season, not just in a small handful of games.
From the Aug. 20-26, 2014, issue