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Area teams hit first practices of 2013 season in stride

Caption
(Alex T. Paschal/apaschal@saukvalley.com)
Dixon football players run sprints to conclude practice on Monday at Reagan Middle School. While numbers will be an issue for the Dukes in 2013, help is on the way with a deep sophomore class.

The road to DeKalb started on Wednesday as high school football practice officially started in Illinois.

The 2013 Illinois state football championships will be played at Huskie Stadium in DeKalb for the first time this November.

On Wednesday, it wasn't as much about championships as it was conditioning, paperwork and equipment adjusting.

But those are all necessary steps, and SVM was at many area practices to see how coaches and players were navigating the first day.

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Newman Comets

"Potential" is the word around the Comets' camp, as turnover has hit Newman hard. A new group of upperclassmen must now take the reins as leaders and starters for a team that has lost much of its key personnel the last 2 years.

But after the hard work throughout the offseason, it wasn't pressure that the Newman players were feeling on the first day of practice Wednesday evening.

"It's really exciting, because it seems like we do have a whole different team this year," senior running back Jake Snow said. "We're all ready to go, happy to be back out on the field, and committed to filling in a lot of spots on and off the field.

"We're looking at this as a positive; we were businesslike a lot last year, because we had so much experience and everybody knew what they had to do. This year, I think we're having a lot more fun finding our way."

It's not just the start of a new season that has the Comets buzzing. As the newest class of a program that has four state titles, two runner-up finishes and a total of 12 trips to the state quarterfinals or deeper since 1989, this year's varsity players are ready to leave their own mark and make their own stamp on the Blue Machine's storied tradition.

"We lost a lot, but we have a lot of guys who are ready to step up and make up for those losses," senior lineman/linebacker Jacob Monier said. "We know we have to earn everything we get; being ranked at the beginning of the year doesn't matter as much as where you're ranked at the end.

"We're excited to be back after making it to the 3A semifinals last year, but that's in the past. We're eager to get back to work and make good things happen again."

Sterling Golden Warriors

Replacing Morse: Gone is 2012 senior dual-threat quarterback Tanner Morse, who totaled 1,459 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2012 for the Sterling Golden Warriors.

"We're not going to replace him, but we feel good about [senior] Bryant Lilly, who's our No. 1 going into camp," second-year head coach Jon Schlemmer said. "He throws a nice ball. He's football smart, but he'll tell you that he's got to get better at certain things."

Lilly was a starting quarterback as a freshman. His sophomore season was cut short because of a broken hand. Last year, he was Morse's backup and started at linebacker. This year, he's back under center.

"We've been working a lot on 7-on-7," Lilly said. "Last year, I didn't go to them. This year, I've been there every game. I'm throwing a lot. I'm more of a throw guy. I'm just not a fast kid."

Past success: Fellow senior Josh Knie fondly remembers his fifth-grade team's accomplishment.

"We won the championship," he said. "We were pretty proud of that."

Knie and company hope to extend Sterling's 11-year streak of playoff appearances.

"I fully expect that," he said. "Everybody has grown better and works better with each other. We're ready to go."

Rock Falls Rockets

New beginning: First-year Rock Falls head coach Scott Berge got a taste of what being in charge was like the first day of practice.

His players hit the field at about 3:30 p.m., but for Berge, it was more like 4:15. He had to sort through some necessary paperwork, then pull a few extra duties, like making sure each of his players had a helmet – the lone piece of equipment needed the first few days.

"It was pretty chaotic," Berge said, "but after we got settled in a little bit and got things smoothed out, we started running our offense. Once we get into our offense, everything's a little calmer."

When Berge gathered his players to dispense words of wisdom, there were three points he emphasized.

"We're expecting to be fast, play hard and finish," Berge said. "Those are three things we're going to preach and really pound home."

Spicing up the Rockets' practice were some loud tunes. Music, such as "Back in Black" by AC/DC, was played during practices a year ago for the first time, but in mid-season, it was stopped.

"All of a sudden we were looking around, and we were like, man, something's missing from practice," Berge said. "We're just not getting what we were getting, and what it was was the music. We brought it out for the last couple of weeks of the season, and the tempo picked up again.

"Tonight, we're going through drills and we've got guys bobbing their heads. Practice is fun, but it's still practice."

Dixon Dukes

At Dixon, the first day of practice was an extension of what was accomplished during the 25 summer contact days. When the Dukes concluded a 3-hour session with some grueling short sprints, the coaches praised those who hustled, and chided those who needed it.

Taking a helmet off, as one boy did after sprints, was a no-no.

"I think the kids were very enthusiastic and excited to get after it," third-year Dixon coach Dave Smith said. "I really liked the level we started with. I thought our summer camp was very good – it's the best summer camp we've had. Our level today showed our summer camp was successful."

One issue Smith will be dealing with, as is the case in many programs, is a lack of numbers. The Dukes have 19 upperclassmen, and just four of those are seniors. There are 37 underclassmen, however, with 22 sophomores suiting up on Wednesday.

New IHSA rules on the length of practice (3 hours) and what could be done (no hitting, no pads – helmets only) the first few days left Smith somewhat limited. What he did see, however, he liked.

"The little things become big things," Smith said, "and I thought our kids did well today. They're enthusiastic to get in, and not afraid to make mistakes and get coached up. Those are things we have to improve on, and I thought we took a big jump today in terms of that."

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