STM Volleyball 9257

St. Thomas More's Kayla Brandon (5) celebrates after a point against Pleasant Plains during an IHSA Class 2A State semifinal match at Redbird Arena Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, on the Illinois State University campus in Normal.

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Practices start Monday, so our preps coordinator offers up one area item on each of the nine fall sports:

It feels like just yesterday I was covering IHSA state track and field meet in Charleston in late May, followed by Tuscola baseball’s super-sectional game in Springfield on Memorial Day.

But, lo and behold, high school sports is back on the radar.

Things get rolling locally in the 2019-2020 prep athletics year with some boys’ golf action this upcoming Thursday.

Fall is, by numbers, the busiest of our three sports seasons.

We’ve got football, volleyball, boys’ soccer, boys’ cross-country, girls’ cross-country, boys’ golf, girls’ golf, girls’ tennis and girls’ swimming and diving to keep tabs on from mid-August through late November.

That means getting prepared for what’s to come in each venture.

I won’t pretend to have all the answers.

Even so, I’ll toss out one intriguing area storyline to watch from each of the above nine sports.

FOOTBALL

Will Champaign Central be even better?

Tim Turner’s first crop of Maroons exceeded most outside expectations with a 6-4 campaign that ended just short of a Class 5A postseason first-round win.

That was with a boatload of juniors on the field.

With those kids one year older, will Central continue to progress?

It could offer the biggest local big-school football excitement since the Maroons made the 5A state semifinals in 2015.

VOLLEYBALL

How will STM adjust?

Coach Stan Bergman, fresh off leading the Sabers to consecutive Class 2A state appearances, used the offseason to move on to Mahomet-Seymour.

STM returns reigning News-Gazette All-Area Player of the Year Allie Trame, an Alabama commit, and first-team pick Caroline Kerr, while gaining the coaching expertise of former Illinois standout Kelly McClure.

With the squad moving up to Class 3A playoff action based on the IHSA’s success factor, it’ll be interesting to see how the Sabers respond.

BOYS’ SOCCER

Can Fisher/Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley capitalize?

The Bunnies posted their best-ever regular season in 2018 with a 17-3-1 mark under Robbie Dinkins.

Then it all came to an abrupt end with a Class 1A regional semifinal stunner, as Fisher/GCMS lost to Unity.

Key pieces such as Caleb Bleich (N-G All-Area first-teamer), Tyler Ricks and Graham Voelker have graduated.

Returning are standout goaltender Ethan Kasper and a bevy of juniors who played big minutes as sophomores.

Will the Bunnies improve or take a step backward?

BOYS’ CROSS-COUNTRY

Can Monticello or Uni High challenge Clifton Central?

The Comets captured the Class 1A state crown last year with just one senior among their seven runners.

The Sages took third and the Illineks fifth to pace local small-school contingents.

Monticello sent out four underclassmen at the 2018 state meet, while Uni High countered with all seven of its racers being in ninth, 10th or 11th grade.

Clifton Central is the favorite to repeat, but both the Sages and Illineks could give the Comets trouble.

GIRLS’ CROSS-COUNTRY

Can Unity do it again?

The Rockets have been an every-other-year project in Kara Leaman’s first four seasons at the helm.

Class 1A state titles in 2015 and 2017. A second-place finish in 2016 and third last year.

Is another top display on the horizon?

It’s hard to say. Unity ran five underclassmen at state last year versus reigning titlist Eureka’s four. But runner-up Rock Falls matched the Rockets at five state-racing underclassmen in 2018.

BOYS’ GOLF

Can Justin McCoy break through as a senior?

The two-time defending N-G All-Area Player of the Year from Champaign Central tied for 12th place at last year’s Class 2A state showcase.

It was derailed in the first round by mid-October snow (seriously), so who knows what McCoy could’ve done with good conditions.

That said, 2019 offers his last shot at a long-desired state title.

The ability is there for the senior. Well-timed consistency is a must.

GIRLS’ GOLF

Will Alaina Bowie go out on a high note?

The St. Thomas More senior and recent Butler University commit paced the Sabers last season with a 10th-place effort at the Class 1A state tournament.

Bowie posted some dominant efforts during her summer run of competition, including a career-best 9-under 63 at Springfield’s Piper Glen Golf Club.

Bowie consistently lets it be known that team unity and success is at her forefront, but she’d certainly love to end her high school tenure atop her class.

GIRLS’ TENNIS

Is Angela Xu a star in the making?

The Centennial senior is the lone returning N-G All-Area first-team selection from the Champaign-Urbana region.

Her Class 1A state singles run last year didn’t last long, concluding on the opening day with a pair of defeats.

But with fellow 2018 first-teamer Gurveena Singh moving away in the offseason, Xu could step into C-U’s top spot.

GIRLS’ SWIMMING AND DIVING

How much can Uni High’s young duo accomplish?

I wrote about the exploits of Illinek stars Reed Broaders and Sally Ma last Sunday, but there’s no discounting the idea they’ll pace the local scene once again in 2019.

Broaders took seventh in state in the 100-yard butterfly and 11th in the backstroke last season. Ma earned 10th in state in the 50 freestyle last November.

Which one of these athletes can earn a top-five state showing first? Or, following in the footsteps of former Uni High standout Ema Rajic, a No. 1 finish?

Colin Likas is prep sports coordinator at The News-Gazette. His email is clikas@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@clikasNG).

Prep Sports Coordinator

Colin Likas is prep sports coordinator at The News-Gazette. His email is clikas@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@clikasNG).