The Lyons Township football team will have a new look this year, in more ways than one.
Not one starter returns from last year's team that went 8-3 and captured its third consecutive playoff berth and fourth in five years. The Lions will also lack the size they've had in the past, which means less reliance on smash-mouth and more reliance on speed.
One thing that hasn't changed, however, are the expectations.
"We've been to the playoffs a number of times in the last five years, so that's an expectation of ours every year," said LT coach Jack Derning, who is beginning his 15th year and looking for his seventh overall postseason appearance with the Lions. "Every year is different in high school football, and this year we're inexperienced. That doesn't change the expectations of the program."
"This senior class spent a year with last year's senior class, and hopefully those traditions get passed down. We expect to do well weather we have nine starters back (like a year ago) or if we have no starters back like this year."
Stepping into the starting role at quarterback this year is senior Mike Bellisario, who saw only limited playing time as a reserve last season. At 5-foot-9, 165 pounds, Bellisario isn't a prototypical passer, but Derning likes his speed and knowledge of the offense.
He's also been selected by his teammates as one of the team captains. Bobby Ridlen (5-foot-0, 165 pounds) will back him up.
LT will have a deeper backfield this season, featuring several runners vying for playing time. Senior Neal Loftus (5-11, 165), who scored six touchdowns a year ago, will likely get the bulk of the time this year. Casey McMurray (5-6, 167), who saw time as a varsity call-up last season, will also figure prominently in the Lions' running game.
Alex Larson (5-8, 150), Luke Gacek (5-9, 156) and Tyrand Williams (5-9, 173) give Derning more options. While none of the backs has tremendous size, Derning likes the quickness each player has shown in practice.
Clearing the way for the running game will be an offensive line of Rich Zwolinski (6-3, 266), center Ted Stepina (6-1, 257), Victor Metroff (5-10, 237), Alex Segal (5-11, 230), Mike Danbra (6-0, 210) and Ryan Jacobs (6-0, 195). Zwolinski will line up at left tackle and Stepina at center. The others will be in the mix for the two guard spots and the other tackle position.
Pat Wilkins (5-11, 160), Zach Morris (5-11, 165) and Dan Jonas (6-2, 180) figure to share time at wide receiver.
The defense is anchored around a pair of tackles?"captain John Keating (5-10, 246) and Jim Phillipp (6-2, 215). Derning plans on using a rotation at the nose tackle spot with Mike Barnum (5-9, 180) and Jeramiah Harris (5-11, 154) getting the bulk of thetime.
What LT lacks in experience at linebacker they make up for in talent. Dan O'Connoll (5-11, 198), Les Bates (6-1, 206), Nick Diorio (5-6, 181), Scott Marik (6-0, 195) and captain Jack Wittkamper (5-11, 184) will all share time.
Steve Grisco (6-0, 161), who would have started at free safety last year if he weren't behind two-time all-conference selection Tim Brewer, will draw the assignment this year. Mike Collins (6-1, 161) and converted running back Russell Harris (6-0, 150) have an inside track on two of the other spots in the secondary, but the last spot is still wid open.
Mike Cklmovski will handle the kicking chores for LT, and his leg could play a prominent role in shaping the Lions' season. Right now Derning thinks the he has Division I college kicking potential.
The Lions will kick off their season Friday when they travel to Arlington Heights to face Hersey at 7:30 p.m. They'll have one more tune-up the following week at home against Hinsdale South before diving into West Suburban (Silver) Conference play.