OUTLOOK: With three perennial state title contenders and several improving programs, the Metro Suburban Conference Blue Division has become one of the premier small-school football leagues in the state.

Last November at Memorial Stadium, on the University of Illinois campus, Immaculate Conception defeated Bishop McNamara 31-21 for the IHSA Class 4A championship. This season, both the Knights and Fightin’ Irish are again poised to make deep playoff runs as the top two teams in the Metro Suburban Blue.

Immaculate Conception features junior running back Kyle Franklin. As a sophomore last season, he rushed for 2,378 yards and 37 touchdowns. Former Fenwick quarterback Danny Cronin has a good chance to become the starter under center for the Knights. On defense, linebacker Kevin Cooke is one of the area’s best players. With a roster oozing top-notch talent, the Knights are the Metro Suburban Blue favorite.

Bishop McNamara will be the Knights’ main challenger for the conference crown and depending on classification could meet again in the playoffs. Quarterback Tyler Hiller enters his third season as the starter for the Fightin’ Irish. Senior linemen Isaac Ruder and Nick Viglia are solid players drawing the attention of college recruits.

Aurora Christian is the third perennial state contender in the league. The Eagles, who reached the quarterfinals in 1A last fall, return several top players, led by junior quarterback Ethan Hampton. He threw for 2,457 yards and 32 touchdowns last year. Defensively, Angel Jaimes is small for a lineman (5-foot-9, 230 pounds), but he’s Aurora Christian’s top returning tackler (58 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, 3 sacks). If a batch of talented newcomers can supplement the returnees, the Eagles could very well be playing at Northern Illinois University’s Huskie Stadium Thanksgiving weekend for a state title.

The other Metro Suburban Blue teams look to take forward strides this fall. Typically a playoff team under coach Brendan Curtin, Riverside-Brookfield took major lumps as a young, inexperienced team last year. With several players gaining varsity playing time in 2018, the Bulldogs could make a run at a playoff spot this fall. St. Francis has one of the league’s best quarterbacks in Tommy Rittenhouse.Wheaton Academy has some promising young talent as well, led by linebacker Trevor Donna (90 tackles, 16 TFL). At Aurora Central Catholic, head coach Luke Brauweiler is counting on a stout running game to help return the Chargers to 2017 form; that year, they were the Metro Suburban Red champions.

TOP PLAYERS: Kyle Franklin RB, JR, Immaculate Conception; Kevin Cooke, LB, SR, Immaculate Conception; Tyler Hiller QB, SR, Bishop McNamara; Luke Gentile RB/WR/DB, SR, RBHS; Chris Doherty RB/DB, SR, RBHS: Ethan Hampton QB, JR, Aurora Christian; Tommy Rittenhouse  QB, JR, St. Francis

TOP GAMES: Immaculate Conception at Belleville Althoff, August 30. The Knights begin pursuit of a fourth consecutive state championship on the road against a perennial Downstate power.

– Immaculate Conception at Joliet Catholic, September 6. The Knights have another challenging road test against a traditional power. The Hilltoppers will be looking to avenge a 42-0 loss to IC Catholic Prep last year.

– Immaculate Conception at Bishop McNamara, September 20. The league’s top two teams meet in Kankakee, with the winner having the inside track for the title.

– Aurora Christian at Immaculate Conception, September 27. The Eagles can make a major statement with a win at Plunkett Field, where the Knights are virtually unbeatable.

-Aurora Christian at Bishop McNamara, October 11. This game features two of the area’s best quarterbacks in AC’s Ethan Hampton and Bishop Mac’s Tyler Hiller.

Immaculate Conception at RBHS, October 26: The Bulldogs welcome the 4A state champs in a tough finale to their regular season. Versatile playmakers like Gentile, Doherty, Eddie Pena, Josh Warren and the Novak brothers (Nic and Matt) will need to make plays if RBHS hopes to hang with the high-powered Knights. 

DID YOU KNOW: Aurora Christian running back/cornerback Josh Dornink is a native of Congo? The sophomore was adopted from a rough part of the country and brought to the United States. He was a key contributor for the Eagles last fall and is already receiving interest from several colleges.

QUOTABLE: “We are very excited about how our team is developing. We have several of the components that many of our teams have had in the past. The one thing we lack is experience. It is safe to say that the 2019 team will grow from season start to end more than most because of this lack of experience. Our chemistry and unselfish core will be very key to our success this year.” Aurora Christian head coach David Beebe on the overall youth of the Eagles.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: Immaculate Conception, Bishop McNamara, Aurora Christian, Riverside-Brookfield, St. Francis, Wheaton Academy, Aurora Central Catholic.