Bolingbrook wasn't even ranked among the top 15 teams in Illinois at the outset of the 2011 high school football season. So the Raiders went on to win 13 of 14 games and the Class 8A championship. That's what can happen when there are no expectations and no pressure to live up to them.
No such luck in 2012, however. Bolingbrook figures to be rated No. 1 in the preseason and coach John Ivlow wouldn't have it any other way. His team has earned as much celebrity as Michael Phelps and Missy Franklin.
"We are the team to beat. We still wear the crown. We have what it takes to win again," Ivlow said. "We're excited for the challenge. We're tired of the summer. We want to start the season.
"Personally, I feel better going into this season than last year. I know the offensive firepower we have. If we can slow people down on defense, I don't feel anyone can keep pace with us on offense."
Bolingbrook, which hosts Plainfield South in its opener on Aug. 24, returns eight starters on offense, including Illinois-bound quarterback Aaron Bailey, whom Ivlow touts as the best player in the state. The 6-foot-2, 225-pounder with 4.51 speed rushed for 1,983 yards and 30 touchdowns and passed for 1,039 and 10 touchdowns last season.
In the state final, Bailey rushed for 149 yards and two touchdowns and completed 8 of 13 passes for 140 yards as second-ranked Bolingbrook upset top-rated Loyola 21-17. His 33-yard scoring dash with 5:01 to play overcame the Ramblers' three-point lead.
"He can be a lot better," Ivlow said. "We will showcase his arm more this season. We live on big plays and he has the ability to break big plays. He has the ability to turn nothing into something. People will come out just to see him play."
Bailey will be surrounded by several other difference-makers and game-breakers--junior cornerback Parrker Westphal, one of the most celebrated defensive backs in the nation, running backs Omar Stover and Jaden Huff and wide receivers Chandler Piekarski, Brandon Lewis and Quincy Woods, whose father once quarterbacked at Rich East and committed to USC.
Ivlow also predicts future stardom for freshman linebacker Tuf Borland and Huff's identical twin brothers, safety Jacob and linebacker Julian, a pair of promising sophomores.
"Offensively, we can be better than last year," Ivlow said. "Defensively, we must replace nine starters. We graduated some great defensive players (including Florida-bound linebacker Antonio Morrison). But we have 11 kids who can play defense somewhere. It is a matter of getting them in the right places."
To prepare for the 2012 season, Ivlow met with new Illinois coach Tim Beckman and fellow high school coaches Dan Sharp of Joliet Catholic, Andy Bitto of Carmel and Craig Buzea of Homewood-Flossmoor to pick up some tips. "We have grown as a coaching staff. Now we know what it takes to win a championship," he said.
"I'm still a rookie. I'm constantly learning. I met with coaches who do similar things. I wanted to learn how they do things, how they structure their programs. I have good assistants and kids. It's a constant learning process. Now we are more confident than ever before."
According to Ivlow, the key to Bolingbrook's success is the weight room. "It has been the sole key to us maintaining our level of competition. Our kids are in shape with a coat of armor and muscle. This could be the best conditioned team I have had in 11 years. They spend as much time in the weight room as they do on the practice field," he said.
A few years ago, Ivlow noticed that his players weren't strong or big or physical. He looked at successful programs, high school and college, and realized that their work in the weight room was the answer to their success, a confidence-builder that turned a so-so program into a champion.
So when he gathers his varsity squad together for the first practice on Wednesday, Ivlow won't have to deliver a "win one for the Gipper" speech. His program is all about getting down the business. It takes a great effort to reach the top but it takes an even bigger effort to stay there. And once you get there, you like the feeling.
"In the summer, we don't get rah-rah. It's all about teaching," Ivlow said. "Some kids won't come out in August. We started with 75 and ended up with 60. Football isn't for everybody. We're dead serious. We don't take anything for granted.
"We don't do a lot of teaching in August. We've already formed our opinions about the depth chart. This is my first year doing it this way, after winning last year. Like it or not, we still are No. 1 until the playoff comes around.
"The work ethic has always been there. Our kids are so competitive. We have competition in some key spots...running back, offensive line, receivers, linebacker, defensive back. We didn't have that in the past. Kids can't sit back and get by with what they accomplished last year."
Bailey is the team leader and Ivlow predicts he will surpass USC-bound running back Ty Isaac of Joliet Catholic as the premier player in the state. He looks for Bailey to become a more accurate and reliable passer. Last year, he completed only 44 percent (58-for-131) of his passes.
"He touches the ball on every play," Ivlow said. "Isaac is great. But he doesn't touch the ball every time."
Bailey will be even more difficult to defend this season. Ivlow has expanded the shotgun package in his offensive playbook so Bailey won't take as many snaps under center as he did a year ago.
"This group eats and sleeps football," Ivlow said. "If you tell them to be in the weight room at 3, they are there at 2. They put in more extra work than any other team I have had, not just 4 or 5 guys but 20 to 30 consistently.
"This isn't a big team but it is quicker. We have a lot of kids who can run. And don't be surprised if 5 or 6 or 7 sophomores start on both sides of the ball.
"We have that elusive state title. We have a great appreciation for the time and effort it takes to get there. We have worked at so many aspects of the game to try to get better. For example, we're better at kickoff returns this year. And that's my job. I handle that. I didn't feel I did a good job of it last year."