Features | Friday Night Drive

Sauk Valley teams eager to get going as practice officially starts to kick off 2022 IHSA season

Dixon and Lasalle-Peru go head to head Thursday, July 21, 2022 in 7 on 7 football drills at Sterling High School.

After an offseason filled with lifting weights and a summer of 7-on-7 workouts and camp, local football players – and all athletes competing in a fall sport this season – finally got back “in season” on Monday with the official first day of practice.

The weather was a factor on Day 1 in the Sauk Valley, with some practices getting rained out, and others not having a full complement of players when some athletes were stranded by floodwaters. On the other hand, those that did get outside enjoyed temperatures in the mid 70s and a nice breeze on what night have been the most pleasant first-day conditions in some time.

Optimism is a common theme for most teams given the fresh start, but time will tell who’s ready to make a leap and who’s going to be competitive.

While parts of practices were similar to the summer camp workouts the teams just finished, the rest of it was getting everybody back in the swing of a season, and honing skills before starting to look ahead to that first Friday night under the lights less than three weeks away.

Sterling Golden Warriors

At Roscoe Eades Field, as soon as coach Jon Schlemmer blew his whistle to start the first practice of the 2022 season, the entire Sterling team was sprinting to the middle of the field and eager to get going.

For quarterback Kael Ryan, it was the moment he’s been waiting for since the spring of 2021.

The Sterling senior suffered a torn ACL in his right knee on April 16 of the 2021 spring COVID season, and missed his entire junior season last fall. Needless to say, he’s been chomping at the bit to get back out on the field.

“It makes it that much sweeter. I want it so bad,” Ryan said. “This group that we have is awesome. I hate leaving football; I love coming here and being around this group. I just never want to be away from the facility.

“It feels like a huge relief, really. Practice is starting and I’m not standing around watching. I’m able to be out there and be a leader and be there with my friends. It’s so important and so fun, and just awesome that football is back.”

For other Golden Warriors, it’s fun to finally see that first game on the horizon, and feel like the goal of getting ready for Week 1 is a lot closer than when camp ended in July.

“It feels great to be back in the football environment, and just flying around on the field with my friends. It’s fun to be out here, and getting ready for the season finally. That first game is getting close now, and we can feel it,” senior Christian Beasley said. “We’re excited to be coming back together as a team. We’ve got some new cats, young cats, and we’re getting used to them and working together, working as a team and just having fun.”

Sterling and Kewanee work against one another Thursday, July 21, 2022 in 7 on 7 football drills at Sterling High School.

Dixon Dukes

With so much rain on Sunday and Monday, the practice field at Reagan Middle School was too wet, forcing the Dukes inside Lancaster Gym for their first day of practice. And while it was a less-than-ideal way to celebrate the official start of the 2022 season, the players didn’t seem to mind it too much.

Dixon finished its camp midway through the last week of July, and then had the first week of August off, as did every high school team. So to get back at it – even on the hardwood – was a welcome sign.

“I just wanted to get back out and play football, wherever it was, just to be able to do it again,” senior lineman Matt Warkins said. “Last week was a long week, and we haven’t been on the field for about a week and a half, so just to be able to do anything football is better than nothing.”

Having that camp so recently also meant that missing out on an outdoor practice wasn’t as big a loss as it could have been.

“Our freshmen year, I think this also happened,” senior lineman Shaun DeVries said. “But we have been working very hard over the summer, and it would’ve been like that today since we’re only in helmets, so it’s not too awkward.”

Even after starting the season indoors and not getting their full practice time in, DeVries feels like the Dukes aren’t really missing a beat because of it.

“Honestly, being a senior this year, I’m very excited. I know all the people that are coming up, and the team bonding is really going well,” he said. “A lot of the skill that is coming into it, power, speed, it’s almost peak condition. I know all these kids, they all worked hard in the offseason, in their free time, and so do the coaches to get us ready. This is a very well-oiled team, and it’s very exciting to see us going into this next season.”

Warkins also thinks the meshing of the returning players and the new faces is going as well as can be expected to kick off the 2022 season, and he feels like things will further fall into place over the next couple of weeks of practices as the urgency surrounding the season opener continues to grow.

“Everyone’s starting to find their spot, and you’re starting to see who’s going to start where, who’s going to do what, and we’re starting to know what to expect from everybody,” he said. “You can really feel that it’s around the corner.”

Newman Comets

The Comets were itching to get back to practice after a long offseason, and eager to build on their 20th straight playoff appearance a season ago, when they won their final three regular-season games to earn a guaranteed berth in the postseason.

“It feels great. We’ve been waiting all year for this, training all summer, and now that the first day’s come, it’s like a dream come true,” senior tight end/receiver/linebacker Jaesen Johns said. “Definitely [trying to] be better than last year. Expectations are always high. With a new coach, with the new stuff we’re putting in, I think we can be ever better than we were last year.”

New head coach Mike LeMay – a Newman alum – takes over for Brandon Kreczmer, who is now an assistant coach at Western Illinois University.

It’s also the first time in three years where the pandemic won’t alter the schedule or the way in which teams can practice.

“It feels great without COVID restrictions, and it feels back to normal. I’m ready to get after it,” senior running back/linebacker Gabe Padilla said. “Same expectations as every year: just pound the ball, keep going, and make the other team give up.”

Newman lost some major contributors to graduation this past spring – including leading rusher Marcus Williams, leading tackler and second-leading rusher Ethan Van Landuit, and top receiver Owen McBride, as well as sparkplug nose guard Will Rude on defense – but boast a few veterans including Johns, Padilla, senior running back/linebacker Hunter Luyando, and running back/safety Nolan Britt, who return to bolster this year’s squad.

Despite losing key pieces on both sides of the ball, Johns and Padilla believe the program is in good hands.

“We have a lot of returning players, but a lot of big, key players that were on that team last year are gone,” Padilla said. “So us seniors have shoes to fill, but I’m feeling pretty confident about everybody on the team, with the new offense and everything.”

“I think, for the most part, it’s pretty even with our seniors coming up replacing,” Johns said. “And we’ve got a lot of younger guys coming up, too, so they should be pretty good for us and for the program in the future.”

Rock Falls football camp members run through stretching drills Tuesday, July 19, 2022. Players of all ages attended the camp ahead of the upcoming season.

Rock Falls Rockets

The Rockets were just as eager as everybody else to get back into the season, and a young roster is already looking to make its mark at Hinders Field.

“It feels great. We’re all ready and pumped to be back,” senior running back/linebacker Ryan McCord said. “Obviously, we want to win. We want to work hard. We don’t want it to just get handed to us. It’s a tough conference, but we’re gonna do our best. We’re going to make sure we put the work in.”

Rock Falls is looking at a boost in the number of players to start preseason practices, and that’s something that the players and the coaches are excited about.

“Our numbers are starting to come, we’re working hard and we’re leaving everything out on the field, so it feels good,” senior running back/linebacker Aidan Kobbeman said. “Hopefully we do a lot better than last year and get more guys out pushing themselves harder than we did last year.”

Kobbeman sees some good young talent coming up on the team, and a few position groups have already stood out to him throughout the offseason.

“We have a few pretty good freshmen that will help us a lot,” he said. “I feel like running backs and linebackers and wide receivers are the strongest positions.”

•••

One of the teams most affected by the weather was Eastland-Pearl City, and the first official practice of 2022 couldn’t have come on a worse day for some of the Wildcatz players.

In Pearl City, where the team had its first practice, heavy rain caused the Yellow Creek and its tributaries in town to flood and block state Route 73 on the town’s north side.

Coach Jared McNutt said four players were unable to attend practice Monday due to having to deal with the high water. The school’s practice field wasn’t affected; it is on a hill on the town’s west side.

The flood topped at around 6 feet high Monday, 3 feet short of record.

• SVM reporter Cody Cutter contributed to this story.

Route 73 in Pearl City flooded after all the rain Sunday and Monday, forcing some of the Eastland-Pearl City football players to miss the first day of practice.