NI Big XII East looks to be up for grabs

Like most football coaches heading into a new season, Kaneland's Tom Fedderly predicts a tight conference race.

"I think it's going to be really even," the ninth-year leader said of the Northern Illinois Big XII East lineup. "I don't think there is a favorite."

Kaneland was that the first three years in the league after shifting out of the Western Sun following the 2009 campaign. The Knights went 5-0 each season from 2010-12.

The rest of the league caught up. Sycamore won the NIBXII East in 2013 and DeKalb, earning its first conference title since 1989 in the Upstate Eight, took the title last season.

Though the division's last three champions plus Morris and Yorkville look to be a close crowd, Kaneland is in better position than it was last season. The Knights' 13 returning position starters, plus returning place-kicker Drew Franklin and including all-conference three-year starting lineman Andrew Kray, nearly double the eight starters entering last season.

Kaneland went 4-5 overall, 0-4 in the division and missed the playoffs for just the second time since 1994.

"It's a big motivation for them," Fedderly said. "They just want a shot that they can bounce back and they have the opportunity to do that."

The return of senior quarterback Jake Marczuk, receivers Mitchel Groen, Tyler Paulson and Tanner Robertsen, plus starting offensive linemen Kray, Logan Strang and Tristan Kinder could provide more margin for a team that lost three conference games by 7 or fewer points. Defensive back Isaiah Baerenklau, the Kray-Strang-Kinder trio and three other returning defensive starters help, too.

Fedderly said, "We were in every game last year," and the Knights actually outscored their nine opponents by 112 points due to three nonconference blowout wins.

Still, Morris coach Alan Thorson, who joined Sycamore coach Joe Ryan with 7-5 Class 5A quarterfinal teams, agrees with Fedderly.

"Our conference is always one of the best football conferences in the state," Thorson said. "As always we hope to be toward the top of the conference, but we know that from top to bottom this conference has very good football teams."

Morris returns six starters on each side of the ball including quarterback Nathan Guth, running back Keagan Sobol and two-way linemen Jackson Shannon and Ryan Niewinski.

DeKalb graduated the East's top overall player in a 9-2 season, Illinois freshman running back Dre Brown. The Barbs have another good back in Tony Tate. In six games before getting injured the 4.48 sprinter ran for more than 450 yards, and has drawn interest from Illinois and Northern Illinois.

DeKalb returns several other key players such as quarterback Derek Kyler, but coach Matt Weckler cautioned his team is "inexperienced at a lot of key positions."

That may also be the case at Yorkville, 8-3 and 3-1 last season. The Foxes reached the second round of the Class 6A playoffs after returning nearly every key player from 2013. Yorkville coach Karl Hoinkes retired after the past school year, succeeded by Dan McGuire.

Sycamore figures to stick near or at the top of the NIBXII East. Ryan graduated star tailback Dion Hooker, now running track at Illinois State, but returns one of the East's best players in 6-foot-3, 210-pound linebacker-tight end Nick Niemann, who will follow older brother Ben to Iowa. The Spartans also feature returning starting quarterback Brett Bemis and three-year starting lineman Zach Kalk.

"The Conference will be very balanced top to bottom," Ryan said. "There may be a team or two who may not have a great conference record, but if they can get in (to the playoffs) they will be a tough out."

Kaneland's Fedderly would undoubtedly agree - though every time you ask him, his goal is to "go 1-0."

"They want to make the most of the opportunity," Fedderly said of his Knights. "We'll worry about each game like we always do, play one at a time and do the best we can."

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