Top teams: Benedictine, North Central, Wheaton
Top players: Benedictine: Brandin Austin, wr, sr.; John Borsellino, rb, jr.; Bryan Wiesemann, te, sr.; Kevin Novacich, ot, jr.; Matt Brown,qb, sr.; Matt McWilliams, cb, sr.; Andrew Taylor, cb, sr.; Grant White, de, jr.; Trent Altieri, lb, jr.; Jake Sakal, dt, so.; Ben Lockton, de, jr.; College of DuPage: Darius Jones, ol, so.; Thomas Foley, ol, so.; Bobby Vega, qb, so.; Darnell Ratcliff, tb, so.; Malcolm Allen, tb, fr.; D.J. Lemons, lb, so.; Josh Pettus, s, so.; Brandon Davis, dt, so.; Sebastian Pittman, dt, fr.; Ervin Anderson, cb, so.; Elmhurst: Joe Furco, qb, jr.; Scottie Williams, rb, jr.; Rodney Payton, wr, jr.; Ryan Bock, te, jr.; Charlie Homoky, ot, jr.; Chris Kirkpatrick,c, jr.; Peter Stamos, g, sr.; Pete Alfano, dt, sr.; Wayne Tuckson, lb, jr.; Jon Janus, s, sr.; Jamall Lane, cb, jr.; North Central: Brad Crackel, qb, sr.; Nick Kukuc, rb, jr.; Jordan Tassio, rb, jr.; Joe Antonacci, wr, sr.; Kyle Fiedorowicz, te, sr.; Nick Capristo, c, sr.; Will Thrun, ot sr.; Conor Denning, ot, sr. Peter Bulandr, dt, sr.; Willie Hayes, de, sr.; Valente Garza, de, sr.; Joey Michals, lb, jr. Josh McLeod, s, sr.; Nick Dace, k, so.; Wheaton: Jordan Roberts, qb, jr.; JJ Clark, te, sr.; Peter Jarrett, tb, jr.; Scott Roche, k, sr.; Teddy Watkins, wr, sr.; Charlie Bell, c, jr.; J.D. East, de, sr.; Robert Ramsay, de, sr.; Brandon Dykstra, dt, sr.; Jordan Chapman, lb, sr.; Richard Jacobson, lb, sr; Jordan Langs, s, sr. : Brian McMullen, s, sr.
Outlook: Two of the best teams in Division III football are right here in DuPage County and they compete against each other in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin. Both Wheaton and North Central, who went to the NCAA Tournament last year, were nationally ranked by every poll and every preseason publication. Wheaton has been a perennial power, going 124-37 in the 15 years under coach Mike Swider, while North Central, after a long spell with just modest or little success, has flourished with a 78-22 record in the nine seasons John Thorne has been at the helm. The Cardinals were 12-1 last season (the 12 victories was a school record) and 7-0 in conference, marking the fifth straight time they either won or shared the CCIW title. They advanced to the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals for the first time. The Cardinals have been ranked as high as fourth in the preseason polls. With 35 seniors returning North Central has the experienced depth to make this another banner year. The team will be bigger and stronger than last year. The Cardinals ranked second in scoring and third in total defense nationally. McLeod, with a school-record-tying 8 interceptions, received All-America mention, as did defensive ends Garza and Hayes. "We're expecting to be really great this year, and one of the reason is because we have so much depth and maturity," Thorne said.
Swider's Thunder went 10-2 overall and 6-1 in conference and advanced to the NCAA for the sixth time since 2002. It has won the CCIW five times. With 26 seniors returning, the Thunder is poised to battle North Central for the top spot in the NCAA. The three defensive linemen East, Ramsay and Dykstra are all-conference types as are three-year starting safeties McMullen and Langs. The offense, which scored nearly 32 points a game, must replace some starters up front, but the Thunder is strong at the skill positions with Roberts at quarterback, Watkins catching his passes and Jarrett at running back. Roche is an outstanding placekicker.
"The confidence and enthusiasm is obviously always higher coming off of a playoff season," Swider said, "so there is a great deal of confidence for the upcoming year."
Elmhurst was 6-4 overall last year with a fairly young team. Coach Tim Lester returns 10 starters on offense and an experienced group filling in for some of the graduated starters on defense. Running back Williams and receiver Payton are returning all-conference difference makers. On defense veteran defensive backs Janus and Lane are honors candidates.. "We want to be one of the top two teams in the CCIW." Lester said. "We need to be more consistent with our play from start to finish. We have depth at every position. There will be some pressure for our new faces to perform right away, but I believe this team has the ability and desire to be a CCIW contender."
Coach Jon Cooper's Benedictine team is also coming off a great year, going 8-3, staying undefeated at 5-0 to win the Northern Athletics Conference, the first time the Eagles have won a conference title in 75 years. They also advanced to the NCAA for the first time in the school's history. Expectations are high again this year with all-star receiver Austin, who caught 64 balls, and Borsellino, who ran for more than 1,000 yards and scored 20 touchdowns. Record-breaking quarterback Preston Earl must be replaced, but Brown is a former starter who should step in without missing a beat.
Returning starters Wiesemann and Novacich are also outstanding. The defense is spearheaded by speedy cornerbacks McWilliams and Taylor. Returning lettermen and promising newcomers are competing for many of the jobs in the front seven, but Cooper is confident the defensive line and linebacking positions are well-fortified. "Overall our defense will be improved," Cooper said. "Our offense was really strong last year, and will be again. We're quick and we have a lot of weapons. We're not going to rest on our laurels. It's important to everyone in the program that we put together a couple of good years in a row."
College of DuPage has a new coach, former assistant Gary Thomas, and the Chaparrals have a lot of talent returning from last year's 7-5 team that won the Graphic Edge Bowl, the team's first bowl win since 1995.
The new skipper expects the team to continue its tradition of graduating its sophomores and sending them on to play football at four-year schools. Offensive linemen Jones and Foley, quarterback Vega, all-conference tailback Ratcliff are veterans who will produce this year and have the potential to go on to the next level. Linebacker Lemons is one of the top junior-college players in the country, while safety Pettus is getting a great deal of attention from four-year schools. "We have quite a few kids coming back," Thomas said. "We like our team speed. Last year we were good enough on offense, but we have to make more plays and make them easier this year. Our defense is a little less experienced, but it's coming along."
Important dates: Oct. 8 Elmhurst at Wheaton, Aurora at Benedictine; Oct. 15 College of DuPage at Harper, Oct. 22; Joliet at College of DuPage; Oct. 29 North Central at Elmhurst; Lakeland at Benedictine; Nov. 6 North Central at Wheaton.
-- Neil Shalin