With practice starting Wednesday, we asked prep sports coordinator Fred Kroner for five storylines:
YEAR OF THE TIGER?
Urbana's football program has been on the rise during coach Nathan Watson's tenure. At least one opposing Big 12 Conference coach believes the Tigers have the team to beat in the league in 2012. That belief is centered around a senior offensive line featuring Devon Williams, Tanner Laznik, Joshua Pratt, Chris Lenear, Mikshadd Townsend and Mustafa Odeh as well as a senior quarterback, Cameron Mammen, who needs 80 yards to break the school's career total offense record and 296 yards to pass 2010 Central graduate Doug Kyrouac (3,106 yards) as the Twin City career passing leader. At least seven starters return on offense and on defense for Urbana, which has 15 lettermen.
COPING WITH CHANGE
There's the inevitable change programs face based on graduation losses or players leaving the team, but Salt Fork will face a series of in-season obstacles as it seeks a 12th consecutive playoff berth. Due to a scheduling quirk, the Storm will play three games in eight days, ending with its two homecoming games in a four-day stretch. The good news is that for the first time since 2009, functional lights will be operational at Jamaica High School, and Friday night football will return Sept. 14 for a game against Milford/Cissna Park. The Jamaica homecoming game will be held Oct. 9 vs. East Central followed by the Catlin homecoming game Oct. 12 vs. Schlarman.
Champaign Central, which last won a playoff game 30 years ago, heads into the season with an interim head coach, Brett Roberts, who is expecting about 120 prospects at all levels. One of the best could be senior kicker Cam Miller, who refined his specialty at various summer camps and enters the year ranked by Pro Kicker as the state's No. 1 kicker, the Midwest's No. 5 prep kicker and the country's 27th-best high school kicker. Miller, who kicked five field goals and 30 extra points as a junior, might find his way onto the field as a receiver or as a defensive back. Senior Joe Jackson-Parks could be an anchor on an offensive line with size, which will help open holes for featured back Tim Turner.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD?
Tuscola, coached by Rick Reinhart, played for a Class 1A state championship last November (again), and Unity, coached by Scott Hamilton, advanced to the semifinals in Class 3A (again). Will they again be among the area's most dominant teams? We're not yet prepared to say no, but here's a point to consider. Tuscola and Unity each reloads with three returning starters on offense and five on defense. The Okaw Valley schools will not play one another this fall. There's some talent returning (including Micah Johnson and Mitch Negangard at Unity; Austin Sexson and Dustin Haake at Tuscola), but there are also plenty of voids to be filled at key positions by as yet unproven varsity players.
A FATHER-SON MATCHUP?
B.J. Luke returns to Danville as the Vikings' eighth-year head coach while his son, R.J., takes over the reins at Springfield High School. Their teams won't meet in the regular season (though Big 12 Conference member Centennial will make a Week 7 appearance at Springfield), but last October Danville and Springfield were first-round Class 6A playoff foes. (The Vikings won 28-14). Danville, 34-4 the past three years, opens the season with consecutive home games. For those interested in scouting the Week 2 opponent, Chicago St. Rita, take note that the Mustangs play their opener (against Chicago Marist) at Chicago's Soldier Field on Aug. 25. St. Rita has won at least 10 games each of the last six years.