Preps Talk

95 Days to Kickoff: Fremd

95 Days to Kickoff: Fremd

NBCSportsChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting Aug. 5, we’ll unveil the @NBCSPrepsTop 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 30.

School: Fremd

Head coach: Lou Sponsel

Assistant coaches: Brent Pearlman, Steve Patton, Jim Schwantz, Dave Hochstetter, Troy Cutler, Paul Hardy, Scott Klein, Rich Cordova, Eric Schinhoster, Lance Burmeister, Vinny Ray, Jim Farrell, Dan Seymour, John Plantz and Mark Cheriso

How they fared in 2018: 5-5 (4-1 Mid-Suburban West). Fremd made the Class 8A state playoff field and lost to Homewood-Flossmoor in opening round action

2019 regular season schedule:

Aug. 30 vs Lake Zurich
Sept. 6 @ Hersey
Sept. 13 vs Maine South
Sept. 20 @ Evanston
Sept. 27 @ Schaumburg
Oct. 4 vs Palatine
Oct. 11 vs Barrington
Oct. 18 @ Conant
Oct. 25 vs Hoffman Estates

[MORE: 99 Days to Kickoff - Prospect]

Biggest storyline: Now that Fremd is back on their own home turf --both literally and figuratively-- for an entire season, can they reload and make a deeper run in the 8A playoffs? 

Names to watch this season: OL Jack Walsh (Jr.), RB Brian Hardy (Sr.), WR/DB Ryan Palmer (Sr.)

Biggest holes to fill: The Vikings will need to find replacements at a few key spots. This includes finding the next Nick Rattin, a do it all QB/RB/DB who graduates this Spring.
 
EDGY's Early Take: Coach Sponsel welcomes back 14 returning starters (seven offense, seven defense) from a state playoff team in 2018. Sure, the Vikings graduated a few big names from a season ago. But if they can navigate a challenging nonconference schedule, look for this team to have a prime shot at competing for the Mid-Suburban West title and another state playoff spot. 

With commitment to Duke, Whitney Young's D.J. Steward becomes Chicago's biggest high school star since Jalen Brunson

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NBC Sports Chicago

With commitment to Duke, Whitney Young's D.J. Steward becomes Chicago's biggest high school star since Jalen Brunson

Whitney Young senior guard DJ Steward ended his whirlwind recruitment on Wednesday as he verbally committed to Duke and head coach Mike Krzyzewski with a video announcement on Twitter.

The 6-foot-3 Steward gives the Blue Devils a major perimeter threat who can score, handle and distribute as he's coming off of a monster summer that saw him push for five-star national status. Steward becomes the second Whitney Young star this decade to commit to the Blue Devils, following in the footsteps of former Dolphins center Jahlil Okafor. While Okafor was a known national prospect as a high school freshman who eventually helped Duke to a national championship in his only season in Durham, Steward had to work hard over the summer before his senior year to earn an offer from the blueblood program.

Duke only showed interest in Steward during his early years but picked things up rapidly after the Nike Peach Jam in early July when they offered Steward a scholarship. Steward's recruitment was effectively sealed last week when Krzyzewski and three Duke assistant coaches -- including lead recruiter and former Glenbrook North star Jon Scheyer -- showed up to Whitney Young's first open gym of the fall. An official visit to Durham last weekend ended Steward's recruitment despite long-standing interest from schools like Illinois, Louisville and Texas -- among many others.

As Duke and Krzyzewski have been engaged in a decade-long battle with Kentucky and head coach John Calipari over five-star prospects and the nation's top college basketball recruiting class, the Chicagoland area hasn't seen much of the nation's top two recruiting programs.

Steward's commitment changes things. His pledge to Duke makes him the Chicagoland area's biggest high school basketball star since Jalen Brunson graduated from Stevenson in 2015. 

Brunson was the state's last McDonald's All-American in 2015 as the state of Illinois has seen an unprecedented drought with top-flight basketball talent the past few years. Other area stars have committed to big programs and been ranked in the national top 100. But the name-brand of Duke Basketball and Coach K resonates with even the most casual of sports fans. 

The commitment to Duke from Steward, along with Whitney Young's status as perhaps the state's best team this season, should lead to a lot of excitement from area basketball fans. The Dolphins will be a hot ticket in their numerous showcase games. It also helps that Steward has been a known varsity performer since his freshman season at Fenwick. In his first season of varsity basketball, Steward became an instant must-see attraction after a perfect 10-for-10 shooting performance in a Class 3A state-title game loss to Morgan Park. Steward is one of the rare players to make a major impact in both the Chicago Catholic League and Chicago Public League during his high school career.

An NBC Sports Chicago All-Area selection during his sophomore season at Fenwick and junior season at Whitney Young (following his transfer), Steward has positioned himself as the favorite to win Mr. Basketball entering his final season. If Steward can complete his high school career with a state title -- which has eluded him to this point -- then he'll have one of the most storied careers in recent IHSA history thanks to his big numbers, winning ways and national reputation.

Coupled with Morgan Park senior guard Adam Miller's monster junior season (and lofty national ranking of his own) and it could be one of the most memorable seasons of basketball in the Chicago Public League in the past decade.

Flying high: Can anyone stop East St. Louis?

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NBC Sports Chicago

Flying high: Can anyone stop East St. Louis?

Depending upon who you believe, the 2019 East St. Louis Flyers are --at minimum-- the state's best team regardless of class size. One could say they are a preps version of the 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers and the 1985 Chicago Bears, wrapped up into one Illinois superpower. Even the Chicagoland media, some of the harshest critics to win over, have been all gaga over the Flyers. This is especially true after East St. Louis dispatched a highly acclaimed, highly ranked Batavia team 31-17 in the opening week. And it was honestly not as close as the score would indicate. 

So the question remains: How good are the Flyers this season and can they be beaten? 

I've been able to see East St. Louis play in person every season since the early 2000s. I've seen quite a few standout East teams and a multitude of standout hig- level college talent over those many years. The program has won more games in Illinois than any other in state history. But I believe in many ways that this could be their best team…ever. But they remain a long ways away from that lofty goal. 

The overall talent level for the 2019 Flyers is undeniable. 

Offensively, start with three star-ranked junior QB Tyler Macon. Macon, who is starting his second season under center, is a year older, faster, stronger and better this fall. Macon already had an impressive arm and deep ball. But his overall confidence level in the passing game and his ability to tuck it and run has increased considerably. Mix in a highly-ranked group of offensive skill position players including three star-ranked senior WR Lawaun Powell, four star-ranked (and the state’s top-ranked recruit via Rivals.com) senior WR/S Antonio Johnson, three star-ranked junior WR Dominic Lovett, senior three star-ranked junior WR Keontez Lewis and rising senior RB Demonta Witherspoon and you have easily one of the state's best skills group. The East St. Louis offensive line averages nearly 280 pounds. They’re led by three star-ranked Tennessee commit senior OG Javontez Spraggins (6-foot-3, 310 pounds).

On defense, they have a terrific mix of speed, size and athletic tools rarely seen at the prep level. The defensive line is led by senior three star-ranked DE Kevon Billingsley (Missouri) and senior DT Kendrick Scarbrough. The back seven is equally as skilled. Keep an eye on senior LB Darius Walker, senior DB Dylan Appleton along with secondary mates Antonio Johnson and Lawaun Powell.

[MORE: AP Week Three Rankings / East St. Louis #1 in Class 5A]

So what will it take for a team to upset the Flyers? 

Neuqua Valley, under head coach Bill Ellinghaus, was able to trade scores with the Flyers last Friday. They also made some key stops at times, but still couldn’t overcome the Flyers in a 50-48 in overtime loss. The Wildcats offense features a standout senior QB in Mark Gronowski (South Dakota State) along with a strong group of backs and receivers including WR Sean Larkin (SIU), senior Patrick Hoffman and senior WR Garrett Stare. Junior RB Armani Moreno has also given the Wildcats a punishing run threat to its already strong passing attack. But it wasn’t enough.

While Neuqua Valley was able to trade score for score, is there another way of slaying this tremendous 618 monster? 

Chicago’s Mount Carmel High School has been able to eliminate the Flyers over the past two seasons in the 7A playoffs. OK, so we all know last year was last year. And we also know the Flyers are looking at playing in either the 6A or 5A state playoff field this November (East isn't being allowed to volunteer to play "up" in 7A but will play in its actual enrollment classification). Stay with me on this-- Mount Carmel, in both playoff wins, reverted a bit back to its old power running game/ball control attack. They slowed down the pace of the game and kept the Flyers’ speedy playmakers on the sidelines for extended periods of time. The Caravan also took full advantage of various East St. Louis penalties, lack of a strong kicking/punting game and turnovers en route to those wins. The Caravan also have a knack of making team pay for costly turnovers-- something that cost the Flyers at times in both playoff losses. 

Admittedly, the chances of teams pulling off an upset of the Flyers, whether in the regular season or postseason looks more and more remote. Sure, East St. Louis still has its entire Southwestern conference schedule ahead of them. The annual showdown with rival Edwardsville (2-1) is always a big game in the Metro area. That comes on Oct. 4. The Week 9 nonconference showdown at Naperville Central sure looked a lot more promising a few weeks ago before the Redhawks got off to an 0-3 start. But Naperville Central still have a shot at making that Week 9 game mean something. 
 
How about the postseason? Again, never say never, but the overall level of competition between playing in Class 7A versus playing in Class 6A or Class 5A can be considerable. Playing in Class 6A or 5A also means the Flyers will be in a more geographically friendly bracket and won't –potentially-- see very many Chicagoland area powers in those classes until very late in the state playoff or even at the state title game. 

Also: let's not forget that this is still high school football. Kids could get hurt and/or suspended. And the only thing certain in high school football is nothing is certain. So can the East St. Louis Flyers be stopped? Of course. Will they be stopped? It's still too early to tell. But what I can tell you is this remains the best team I've seen so far this season in the Land of Lincoln. That I'm pretty certain about...at least for now.