The music of Journey pounded out loud on the first day of football practice at Belleville West, but it was a song that summed up the optimism of all metro-east teams hitting the practice field Monday.
“Don’t Stop Believin’.”
On Monday, each area team was still holding on to the feeling of being undefeated and dreaming of making the playoffs — or better yet, a long playoff run.
Everything was fresh and new.
“It was tough, the first day back,” Belleville West running back-linebacker Nick Foster said. “I usually go to bed around 9:30, but last night I just couldn’t fall asleep.”
Neither could Althoff wide receiver Keenen Young, a four-year starter who claimed he stayed up all night.
“I just love being out here,” said Young, one of nine starters back on offense for the Crusaders. “Any time you’re able to get back on the field excited. I didn’t get any sleep last night. I may have to take a nap after this, but it’s always the same.
“First day of practice and it’s my senior year, so it’s fun.”
Last season did not prove to be a fun season as far as the playoffs for metro-east teams. East St. Louis (7-5) made the longest trip, losing to Peoria Notre Dame in the Class 6A quarterfinals, while Edwardsville (9-2), Highland (9-2), Nashville (8-3), Belleville West (7-4) and Althoff (7-4) all made second-round playoff exits,
East St. Louis owns the last two state championships for local teams, winning titles in 2008 and 1991.
Looking for some big-time recruits to watch this season?
Edwardsville junior defensive end and three-sport standout A.J. Epenesa (6-foot-5, 230 pounds) is the No. 1 recruit in Illinois at his position for the Class of 2017 and 23rd nationally according to Rivals.com. Among his 18 scholarship offers are Florida State, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Missouri, Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin.
East St. Louis junior wide receiver Jeff Thomas (5-10, 165) is rocketing up the recruiting charts thanks to his off-the-charts speed and ability. Alabama, Florida State, Texas A&M, Illinois and Missouri are among nine major scholarship offers for Thomas, who caught 57 passes for 1,143 yards last season and scored 22 touchdowns.
Rivals.com ranks Thomas as the No. 2 junior receiver in Illinois and No. 63 nationally and he has drawn comparisons to a pair of former Flyers’ All-American receivers, Terry Hawthorne and Homer Bush.
“Jeff has worked hard in the offseason but I don’t think you can, nor is it fair, to compare him with a Terry Hawthorne at this stage of his career,” Flyers coach Darren Sunkett said. “For one thing, Terry Hawthorne and that group of kids I believe lost maybe three or four games. Jeff Thomas has been on teams which have lost what, nine games, I believe. Terry Hawthorne was a leader who helped his team win a state championship. You can do the simple math.
“Jeff Thomas’ accomplishments are in personal statistics. Now we’ll see if he can be a leader on this football team and help take this team to a state championship.”
Another big-time running back recruit is O’Fallon senior Kentrail Moran, who committed to Illinois in March. The 5-9, 195-pound back is considered the 13th-best high school running back nationally by Rivals.com.
The early morning practices Monday were met with overcast skies as sweaty offensive and defensive linemen probably likely gave thanks for temperatures in the low 80s instead of the high 90s.
Pettus just returned from a vacation in Mexico, but even then his mind was on football.
“Just what the new pieces are going to look like, because we graduated a good senior class,” said Pettus, who is replacing former standout quarterback Sherand Boyd with Logan Betz. “We’ve got a lot of new faces and a lot of young kids that are going to be playing this year, but we’re excited because we feel they’ve got a shot to be pretty good.”
Four of Althoff’s five basketball starters last season are also football starters. That includes senior four-year starting receiver Keenen Young, junior tight end Jordan Goodwin, senior wide receiver Tarkus Ferguson and junior receiver-defensive back C.J. Coldon.
Goodwin, who has basketball scholarship offers from Illinois, Missouri, Purdue, St. Louis University and Virginia Tech, among others, had never played football before coming out as a sophomore at Althoff.
“I love football. I think football and basketball are practically like the same for me right now as far as how much I like it,” Goodwin said. “I’m an athlete. When I’m out here, I’m a football player. When I’m in there on the court, I’m a basketball player.”
Althoff coach Ken Turner said he’s not surprised how quickly Goodwin and Ferguson picked up football, although Ferguson had played some when he was younger.
“For a kid that was in his first year playing, I thought (Goodwin) had a tremendous year,” Turner said. “It was a learning process each day because you know he’s gone a lot in the summer with all his (basketball) tournaments and everything. Towards the end of the season, I thought he was pretty good.
“This summer he’s taken it up a notch even higher.”
Turner said Ferguson “might be the best athlete in the school.”
“He goes up and get it, and he’s not slow,” the coach said.
Turner talked about why football works as a “new” sport for some high school athletes.
“Out of all the sports, I think football is the easiest to pick up for a guy coming into high school,” Turner said. “You can’t come out(for basketball) if you’ve never played basketball, you can’t play baseball (if you never played). But if you’re a good athlete, you can play football. If you run well, it’s not hard to teach a guy (pass) routes and the ins and outs of blocking.”
Pettus and the Maroons got some good news this week on former West and Northwest Missouri star Travis Manning, who is pushing for time at cornerback with the New Orleans Saints during the early days of training camp.
“That’s fantastic,” Pettus said. “Any time you coach players and they have a shot to go on and play at the highest level, that’s always special. Absolutely.”
Sunkett and the Flyers are preparing for two difficult nonconference games. The Flyers play Chicago Simeon Aug. 29 at Gately Stadium in Chicago, then take on 2014 Class 5A state runner-up Montini Sept. 5 at the City of Champions Classic at Clyde Jordan Stadium.
The East St. Louis-Simeon game was originally scheduled to be played at Soldier Field in Chicago, but Sunkett said the site had been changed.
“We’re playing one team (Simeon) which reached the state semifinals last year and another team in Montini which has won several state titles and was in the state title game last season,” Sunkett said. “It’s a couple of tough opponents, that’s for sure.”
Both Belleville East, which has a new head coach in former West assistant Kris Stephens, and Belleville West are playing on turf fields now.
“It’s beautiful,” Foster said. “It’s a lot less muddy, though. I like the mud.”
Sports reporter Dean Criddle contributed to this story.