Any path to a potential Southwestern Conference football championship typically runs through East St. Louis.
The Edwardsville Tigers ran through an unbeaten regular-season last season on the way to a spot in the Class 7A semifinals and 12-1 record, but only beat the Flyers 29-28.
In fact, East St. Louis went through a rare two-game conference losing streak when it dropped another game the following week to O'Fallon.
However, the Flyers won their next eight games before a 7-6 loss to Oak Lawn Richards in the Class 6A semifinals ended their dream of an eighth state football title.
"Darren Sunkett's done a great job," O'Fallon coach Brandon Joggerst said of the Flyers' coach. "They're perennially deeper in the playoffs than most (area teams) and you know they're going to put a formidable product on the field every year. They don't have down years, so you know when you play them you've got to bring it."
Entering the 2014 season, which begins Friday, East St. Louis has more wins than any Illinois high school football program. Research released over the summer showed the Flyers with a record of 737-188-36 since 1925 for an incredible winning percentage of .786.
The Flyers' seven state titles are easily the most of any metro-east team. Althoff is second with three.
"In non-conference, traditionally they're playing the best teams they can find and it's no different this year," Joggerst said of the Flyers. "They find out right away what they need to work on and they improve. You know when you play them it's going to be a very physical, fast-paced game and you're up against a good team."
The Flyers' first four games this season are brutal.
They are on the road against St. Xavier from Cincinnati, Ohio, then travel to Chicago to face Montini. Montini's run of four straight 5A state titles ended last season with a second-place finish.
After that, it's back-to-back SWC games against Edwardsville and O'Fallon.
"It's a dogfight each and every week in our conference," Joggerst said. "Everybody's improved, even the teams that haven't fared well. Everybody's asking this time of the year how you're going to be. I feel very good with where we're at, but the problem is the league is a step better than it's been the last few years."
Usually when two teams play each other twice in one season, the second meeting is in the state playoffs.
That's not the case for Cahokia Conference rivals Carlyle and Wesclin, which will meet once in am Oct. 3 conference game and then play each other again Oct. 24 in a nonconference game.
"I've heard of other schools doing it, but this is the first time we've done it," Carlyle Athletic Director Darin Smith said. "We both had issues getting someone our size and without traveling four or five hours. We just ust decided to try it and see how it goes.
"From a travel standpoint you can't beat it, a 20-mile round trip."
While Belleville West senior kicker Austin Seibert has already made a verbal commitment to Oklahoma, don't overlook O'Fallon junior kicker Tucker McCann.
"Seibert's very special and hopefully (McCann) can be in a somewhat similar fashion in the junior class," Joggerst said.
During O'Fallon's scrimmage Friday, McCann booted a 60-yard field goal and may have the leg to go a little further.
"It was a controlled field goal in a scrimmage, but he's been kicking the ball really well," Joggerst said. "He started at about the 40 and worked his way back. It was nice, we had a really good-sized crowd there and he had the spotlight there for a few minutes."
McCann had eight field goals and 28 extra-points last season as a sophomore.
Looking for a conference
Mater Dei coach Jim Stiebel said in an ideal world, the Knights would compete in the Mississippi Valley Conference or even the South Seven.
Instead, they remain one of seven football independents in Illinois and have a rugged 2014 schedule because of it.
"That's not on purpose," said Stiebel, whose team has faced Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin and Jacksonville in recent years and will take on Althoff and Quincy Notre Dame this season. "We tried with all our might to get into the Mississippi Valley Conference; they met and had a vote and we didn't get in there, but maybe they'll consider it for next year."
Why is it so tough for independents in football? Stiebel thinks qualifying for the state playoffs is the main issue.
"Teams want to make sure they get to six (wins to qualify) and I don't blame them," he said. "We need to get in a conference that would be competitive, but one where we don't have to face every team we play being a playoff team."