At this time last year I truly had no question who would be the top team in Illinois heading into the preseason.
Homewood-Flossmoor had a ton of returning starters from its 2014 Class 8A title game appearance, and the Vikings became the preseason consensus pick. While the Vikings lost to the eventual top-ranked team Loyola Academy, 34-28, in the quarterfinals, very few would argue that they didn't belong in the top tier of teams in 2015.
So who gets the bulls as the top-ranked team going into 2016? It might not be quite as clear as it was in 2015.
Let's start with Loyola. Head coach John Holocek's Ramblers welcome back just five starters from last year's title-winning team, but don't let the overall number of returning starters fool you. Loyola has talent on all levels. If the Ramblers have proven anything over the past 6-7 seasons, they don't rebuild. They just reload.
But Loyola won't be the only Chicago Catholic League school in the mix as Brother Rice and Mount Carmel will challenge all foes in 2016. Providence Catholic and St. Rita welcome back several returning starters from a season ago. St. Laurence returns 14 starters and Montini Catholic will bring back five starters on offense, including standout running back Prince Walker.
How about Phillips? The feel good story of the 2015 season, which saw the Wildcats capture the first state football title in Chicago Public League history. They will reload as well. The Wildcats already have several underclassmen from last year's team on the college recruiting radar. Expect Phillips to challenge for another title.
One of the most interesting stories heading into the 2016 season will be the Lincoln-Way schools. With the closing of Lincoln-Way North at the end of the school year, which remaining Lincoln-Way school (or head coach for that matter) will benefit the most from the merging of North? My money is on Lincoln-Way East and head coach Rob Zvonar, who will inherit even more numbers and talent heading into next season.
Homewood-Flossmoor? The Vikings will be hit hard by graduation losses this spring. That said, no one seems to have as much talent, numbers and flat-out athletes in Chicagoland than Craig Buzea's bunch.
Nazareth Academy? Lots of talent has passed through the halls in La Grange Park over the past two seasons. The Roadrunners feature back-to-back titles and the 2016 team will welcome back several key starters.
The DuPage Valley conference? Pick a team that wins the league title (really any team) to be honest. Whoever survives the DVC schedule is automatically playoff tested and I would focus on the likes of the two Valley schools (Waubonsie and Neuqua), along with Naperville Central and Glenbard North.
Palatine was under the radar until the 2015 postseason, but that won't happen next season as the Pirates will bring back a ton, including quarterback Zach Oles.
Other very worthy names to watch include the two top dogs in the Fox Valley Conference: Cary-Grove and Prairie Ridge. The Trojans return running back/linebacker Ty Pennington, while the Wolves have two more years with quarterback Samson Evans running the option attack.