The calendar says August, but unseasonably cool temperatures in the low to mid-70s Wednesday gave players and coaches a reprieve on the first day of high school football practice.
"I think it can be kind of bad," Belleville West coach Cameron Pettus said. "Come game time it's probably going to be hot and humid and I want our kids to get acclimated to it. You can't complain, you can work all day long and not worry about it."
Something Southwestern Conference schools should be worried about is trying to score touchdowns this season. The league is loaded with numerous Division I prospects on that side of the ball led by national level recruits Dewayne Hendrix at O'Fallon and East St. Louis junior Terry Beckner, Jr.
East St. Louis coach Darren Sunkett said the SWC has always been noted for its strong defense.
"The SWC has always been built on defense," Sunkett said. "Everybody has always been pretty solid. Especially the better teams in the league. Everybody has always had some pretty good ballplayers on the defensive side of the football.
"It's just that this year its highlighted by the fact that we've got more nationally-ranked players this year then ever before. It's going to make some games just that much more exciting this year.''
Hendrix is considered the ninth-best defensive end in the country by Rivals.com and the fourth-best prospect in Illinois. He has 21 scholarship offers from schools such as Ohio State, Florida, Tennessee, Nebraska, Illinois and Missouri.
Beckner (6-4, 270) is considered among the best defensive linemen in the country in the junior class. According to Rivals.com he already has offers from 14 schools, including Ohio State, Florida, Florida State, Tennessee, Illinois and Missouri.
"Our area is starting to get noticed more and that conference is producing a lot of talent now," Althoff coach Ken Turner said. "We've always thought we had good players around here, but now we're starting to get players on the national level and that's pretty cool to see kids going to those real big schools."
There are plenty more Division I prospects among the SWC linebackers and defensive backs.
"I'm just tickled to see that competition and be able to compete with all those great teams and great players," Pettus said. "Everybody's got some of those talented players and it's not like there's one team that's loaded up with them. That's going to be fun football."
Turner said his team has moved past the disappointing 14-7 loss to Mercer County in the Class 2A state championship game last November.
"We decided to put it in the past, we're looking ahead," said Turner, whose team returns some of the top skill players from 2013 led by Division I quarterback prospect Eric Mertens. "We've got a few guys that played last year and they're excited about having that brand new start.
"It puts more excitement in the program because some of the guys were able to see what we've done and what we're capable of."
End of the line for rivalry
One of the area's top rivalries will come to an end when Althoff plays Belleville West for the final time Sept. 6 at Belleville West. Althoff stopped playing Belleville East several years ago.
Althoff and West have been playing each other since 1933 when Belleville's Catholic high school was known as Cathedral.
"This was a rivalry before I was born, so it's been pretty big with some great games and some great memories for a lot of people," Turner said. "With the long-standing rivalry that's been going on forever, it will always seem strange not to have those guys on the schedule any more."
Belleville West has won the last five games against Althoff, which had won six straight over the Maroons from 2002 to 2007.
"I was extremely disappointed in (the series ending) because we've been playing for so many years and that's something you don't want to lose," Pettus said.
Lancers ready to roll
Belleville East coach Tim Funk and the Lancers opened camp on Wednesday in preparation for their Aug. 30 home opener against Chicago Hubbard without star running back Brandon Mason.
One of the top offensive players in the SWC a year ago, Mason suffered a broken left leg during summer workouts. Funk said no specific timetable has been set for Mason's return.
"Of course it hurts not having Brandon. We're looking at midseason, maybe week four or week five, but it will be up to the doctors," Funk said. "We're just going to need others to step up and I think we've got kids who can do that.''
Following the Hubbard game, East travels to take on perennial Missouri state power Jefferson City.
"Chicago (Hubbard) was a little down last year but they've got a very good program and are perennially in the playoffs,'' Funk said. "They are a lot like East St. Louis and Cahokia in that they rely a lot on speed and quickness and are very athletic."