Unless they have a son on the team, Lyons Township High School football fans are going to need a program when attending the 2015 season opener against Warren Aug. 28 at Bennett Field.
The Lions return only two starters from the squad that went 5-5 and took eventual Class 8A state champion Stevenson to the wire before losing 21-17 in the first round of the playoffs. In addition, only one other player saw significant varsity action last fall.
“Everybody else is brand new,” Lyons Township High School coach Kurt Weinberg said. “This is the youngest team I’ve ever coached.”
That makes Weinberg, who has guided the Lions to the playoffs in each of his six seasons at the helm, nervous and excited at the same time. The inexperience, especially in a conference as rugged as the West Suburban Silver, is a definite drawback, but Weinberg sees opportunity.
“It’s been a great summer,” Weinberg said. “A lot of guys have stepped up. There’s been a lot of competition because it’s wide-open for every position.
“The good thing is the two returning starters are offensive linemen and both are excellent football players, probably two of the best linemen in the area.”
That would be guard Chase Nacker and tackle Taylor Curlin, who play next to each other. The two seniors have size – Nacker is 6-0, 255 while Curlin is 6-4, 225 – and experience and this fall will also see plenty of action on the defensive line at nose guard and defensive end, respectively.
Their presence will bring some stability up front on both sides of the ball and hopefully a calming influence to an otherwise green squad. Most of the new starters will be juniors and several sophomores likely will crack the lineup.
“The flip side is next year we’ll have one of our most experienced teams,” Weinberg noted. “So it’s an ebb and flow.”
Ironically, Weinberg is not too worried about replacing last year’s two top stars. Quarterback Chase Fiedler and running back Leonard Ross have graduated, but the Lions are high on their replacements.
Ben Bryant, a 6-3, 185-pound sophomore, takes over for Fiedler while junior Reggie Terrell could remind people of Ross if not make them forget the now-Miami of Ohio freshman.
“I’ve never had a sophomore quarterback,” Weinberg said. “(Bryant) has got a great arm, quick feet, quick release and good size and he’s smart.
“The guys have confidence in him. He’s done really well in 7-on-7. There’s some things he has to improve but by and large he did well.”
The Lions took third at the prestigious Red Grange 7-on-7 passing league at Wheaton Warrenville South, which bodes well for Bryant and a talented receiving corps which includes Jimmy Saracco, a versatile 5-10, 195-pound senior who could contribute at a number of positions, and another sophomore, Brandon Fischer.
“He’s super quick,” Weinberg said of Fischer. “He’s a small kid but you get him in the open field and it’s hard to get a hand on him let alone tackle him.”
Orchestrating the attack will be new offensive coordinator Jon Beutjer, who takes over play-calling duties after several seasons as quarterbacks coach. Beutjer, who played at Illinois, directed the offense of arguably the most dominant high school team in state history when he threw for over 4,000 yards and a then-national record 60 touchdowns for an unbeaten Wheaton Warrenville South team in 1998.
“His knowledge of the passing game is awesome and he’s been helping us for several years,” Weinberg said. “It’s still going to be a collaborative effort.”
And the Lions still figure to run the ball if Terrell lives up to his billing. “He’s super fast and powerful,” Weinberg said. “He’s going to be awesome.
“Last year we were a little run-heavy because we had a Division I running back in Ross and this year we’re going to throw more, but we’ll still be balanced. We have the makings of another great running back.”
The picture on defense is not as clear as no full-time starters are back for new defensive coordinator Bryan Bergman. Senior linebacker Kevin Minik figures to be the leader of a no-name group.
“Kevin was really close to playing last year,” Weinberg said. “We’re excited about the things he’ll bring. A lot of different younger players, mostly juniors, will start. We’ll be young but we’ve got some exciting talent.”
The Lions do have one thing going for them in that they open the season with three consecutive home games, which they hope will ease them into another grueling WSC Silver campaign.
State semifinalist Glenbard West is again the favorite and LTHS is not on anyone’s list of contenders, but Weinberg has made clear that expectations remain high.
“We’re still Lyons Township and we still want to win,” Weinberg said. “That’s not going to change.
“We still expect to make the playoffs but we’re going to take it game-by-game. We start off with a very tough opponent in Warren.”
Indeed, the Blue Devils have beaten the Lions in the last two season openers, so beating them could spark LT to a school-record seventh straight playoff appearance.
“If we are fortunate enough to win that first one,” Weinberg said, “I feel real good about our chances.”