When talking to NUIC Northwest coaches Randy Asche and Mike Bicklser, the term "gauntlet" came up in conversations with both about this upcoming season's schedule.
Asche used it when referring to his Eastland-Pearl City Wildcatz's stretch of traditional powers Dakota, Galena and Lena-Winslow in Weeks 3-5.
"We've got to get off to a good start, then stay strong through the middle of the season," Asche said. "I think it's a wide-open conference race this year, and it doesn't get any easier; we're not going to be able to out-talent teams like we did last year.
"If we play as good as we're capable of, we'll be OK against several really good football teams on our schedule. If we're not playing well when we hit that wall, then build from it, it could be a long season."
Bicksler used the term to describe the first 5 weeks for the West Carroll Thunder, with EPC, East Dubuque, Forreston, Le-Win and Dakota making for a quintet of teams that finished a combined 38-16 a year ago, with four playoff berths.
"The hardest part for the kids is that opening stretch, which makes it hard to get out of the gate strong," Bicksler said. "It's good to get those tough teams out of the way, and it's a good measuring stick, but by the time we get to the back end of the schedule, we're beat up physically and mentally.
"It's just tough that you're already in trouble right off the bat if you're not playing your best football right at the start."
Both schedules are near carbon copies of last year's slate, with Pecatonica – who did not play varsity games a year ago – replacing an out-of-conference game for each team, and the home and away games flip-flopped.
The Wildcatz were the class of the conference last season, winning their nine regular-season games by an average margin of 35 points (420-103) and allowing more than 14 points just twice.
But Asche's squad lost some 3-year starters at both the skill positions and the lines on both sides of the ball, and he knows 2014 won't be a cakewalk.
"We're not going to be able to out-talent people this year, just win on sheer talent alone," Asche said. "We've played seniors against teams who are undergoing youth movements the last couple of years, and now we're in their shoes and they're in ours.
"And we didn't play in a lot of close games last year, and it scares me how we'll react to it. We're probably not going to be able to get up early and coast like we have at times in the past, and we have to rely on our seniors and have other kids step up for us."
The Thunder are one of those teams getting more experienced. After starting 0-5 during its tough early-season stretch last year, West Carroll won three of its last four games. Bicksler hopes that late-season success in 2013 carries over to 2014.
"We were a lot more competitive, and that's what we're trying to get from the guys game in and game out," Bicksler said. "We want them to stop looking at the scoreboard and worrying about wins and losses, and start focusing on improving and playing good football. If you do that, good things will come.
"We've got a good opportunity to maybe surprise some people this year, if we can take advantage of it."