COAL CITY – When you had a team that year before that reached the football state semifinals and featured one player that had the best season anyone from your school has ever had and another that went on to be on the roster at University of Illinois, it's natural to talk about what your team has to make up for this year.
But Coal City coach Lenny Onsen is done saying good-bye to Jack Dibble and Matt Long, along with the rest of the seniors that led the Coalers to the Class 4A semis before losing to Chicago Phillips last year.
Now, it's time to look at what he has in house. And, as usual in Coal City, it looks pretty good.
To start off with, the Coalers return starting quarterback Nick Micetich from last season, along with receivers Brad Littleton and Ryan Horrie and Alec Leasure on the offensive line. Marco Alegria, who did not start but saw significant time on the offensive line, also returns. Taking the place of departed running back Jack Dibble will be Joe Starkey, who got most of the snaps when Dibble needed rest last season.
"I have already told the guys several times, 'Look around. Those guys from last year aren't here any more. This is your team now.' " Onsen said. "Having a guy like Nick who has a lot of experience at quarterback is a good place to start. Brad Littleton is coming back for his third year on the varsity, and Alec Leasure and Marco Alegria will be the anchors up front. Joe Starkey carried the ball quite a bit last year for us, so I look for him to step up this year.
"Our offensive line will have a few juniors in it, so that might be a work in progress the first couple weeks until we get the best mix together. A lot of the success of the offensive line is figuring out how to work together. We did that real well last year, and we are getting there so far this year. There are some that are taking strides and proving themselves, but that can change from week to week."
For years, the Coal City program has hung its hat on its defense, and 2015 should be no exception. Especially when there is a lot of experience coming back.
Alegria and Brad Churnovic return to start on the defensive line, while starting linebackers Matt Norton and Paul Jones also return. In the backfield, Junior Aris and Littleton return as starters, as well as Mike Chiarappa, who saw a lot of time as a junior.
"We feel real good about the defense heading into the year," Onsen said. "Having two guys returning at each level is nice. Matt Norton had a real good year last year and he's one of those guys that's just always in the right place on the field. And, if he knows where he is supposed to be, then he knows where everyone else is supposed to be and can get them there.
"With our offense still figuring some things out, especially early in the season, we are going to have to count on our defense, and I feel pretty good about that."
The Coalers open play tonight at home against Reed-Custer before heading to Wilmington to take on the defending Class 3A state champions.
"We'll find out pretty quick how things are for us," Onsen said. "The first few weeks are always fun and interesting. We will have some two-way players, and we have to figure out how to get them some rest here and there. There's always challenges along the way, and that's what makes it fun.
"This year might be a little different than some years. We really aren't as big as we have been in the past, but we're pretty confident that we will do what we need to do to have success. The good thing is that the kids have high expectations, and that's how it should be. So far, we are right where we should be. The seniors are where they should be and so are the juniors. If we are in the same place in Week 5 or 6, then I would be a little disappointed, but for right now, they are coming together pretty well. We have days where we come off the field and see some real progress and some days not as much. But that's to be expected."
COALERS AT A GLANCE
Coach: Lenny Onsen
2014 record: 10-3 overall, 4-1 Interstate Eight Large
Classification enrollment: 593 (probable Class 4A)
Offensive coordinator: Jim Mikula
Defensive coordinator: Lenny Onsen
Returning offensive starters: Nick Micetich, Brad Littleton, Alec Leasure
Returning defensive starters: Marco Alegria, Brad Churnovic, Matt Norton, Paul Jones, Littleton, Junior Arias.
August: 28 – Reed-Custer, 7 p.m.
September: 4 -- at Wilmington, 7:15 p.m.; 11 – at Peotone, 7:15 p.m.; 18 – Plano, 7:15 p.m.; 25 – Sandwich, 7:15 p.m.
October: 2 – at Streator, 7:15 p.m.; 9 – Manteno, 7:15 p.m.; 16 – Lisle, 7:15 p.m.; 23 – at Seneca, 7:15 p.m.