STREATOR - The novel coronavirus pandemic wiped out first summer workouts, then the preseason, then the fall football season in 2020.
As vaccination numbers rose and COVID-19 cases fell in early 2021, the possibility of an Illinois high school football season during the 2020-21 school year blossomed into a late-winter preseason and abbreviated, four-to-six-game regular season in the spring with no state playoffs.
As challenging as preparing for that COVID-altered season was for all teams and coaches, it was even more so for programs looking to rebuild under first-year head coaches, such as the Streator Bulldogs led by Kyle Tutt. The Bulldogs, though, did their best to at least put in the groundwork for the future success Tutt envisions, and made strides despite an 0-5 campaign against Illinois Central Eight Conference competition.
“We definitely feel better than we did starting last year,” Tutt said during Streator’s summer camp earlier this month. “We don’t feel like this is a first-year coach with a first-year team. ... While we didn’t get everything in last season, we felt we got enough in to hit the ground running a little faster.
“We’re not building brick by brick now. We’ve got a little bit of foundation laid, and we’re able to build on that this year.”
The cornerstones of that foundation upon which the Bulldogs hope to build with an almost full offseason and a promisingly sizable 18-man freshman class reporting to voluntary summer activities are the returning players who got a taste of on-the-field varsity leadership in the spring.
“We were a little bit handcuffed last year, and we feel a little more open in our offense and what we are able to do — get guys the ball in different positions so they can be the most effective on the field.”— Streator head football coach Kyle Tutt
Three of those leaders and probable team captains will be senior running back/linebacker Cade Stevens, senior Tyler Luckey — expected to add other offensive positions outside of quarterback to his resume in addition to his work in the defensive backfield — and sophomore Christian Benning, a quarterback/linebacker who was at times a revelation as a freshman.
“Ty(ler) Luckey is still a guy who has to be a leader for us. He’s going to move around a little bit, play some different positions. Cade Stevens, who really came alive at the end of the year, is going to get the ball in a lot of different positions now ... and Christian will be building off what he did in the spring.
“I think another thing you’ll see this year is guys coming back (after missing time during the spring season) ... having those guys and seeing the offense flow a little bit better. We were a little bit handcuffed last year, and we feel a little more open in our offense and what we are able to do — get guys the ball in different positions so they can be the most effective on the field.”
“I’m expecting to do a lot this year,” said Benning, a Times All-Area First Team selection from the spring who took on increased quarterback reps this summer, “but really I’m just here to play for my teammates, do what I can do so we can win. ...
“I think the biggest thing is we need to come together, be a brotherhood and learn to be teammates.”
Even with the year under their belts in Tutt’s system a shortened and odd one, Luckey feels the experience will benefit the team when the fall season begins Aug. 27 against East Peoria.
“Coach Tutt was great with us last year, just teaching us the system in his first year,” Luckey said. “I think we got some good experience in the short season, and I think that’s definitely going to help us this year to have a different outcome in our games this year.”
With the large ninth-grade group coming up behind them, the leadership of players with both talent and experience — such as Luckey, Benning and Stevens — will be key.
“For the guys coming in, I think it’s huge,” Stevens said. “And for Coach Tutt, it’s his first class as a new coach that he gets a real season with, and I expect (the upperclassmen) to take them under our wing and help them out as much as we can so they can hopefully help us out as much as they can. ...
“Our goal is the playoffs.”