The NUIC is down from 17 to 14 football teams this season.

By Al Zipsie

Polo and River Ridge are going to eight-man football. Warren is joining a Coop with BlackHawk a defending Wisconsin state champion.

Instead of the NUIC Northwest and Upstate Illini based on the size of school enrollment. This year the divisions will be broke up into the North and South.

In the North will be Lena-Winslow, Dakota, Stockton, Galena, Orangeville, East Dubuque, and Durand/Pecatonica. The South will be Forreston, West Carroll, Amboy/LaMoille, Milledgeville, Aquin, Eastland/Pearl City, and Ashton/Franklin Center.

The first two weeks will be crossover games playing schools with similar enrollment size. Then the North and South will play Conference games with one cross over game each week. And another season begins with all having the dreams of still playing the day after Thanksgiving, which means your in the State Championship game. While there were several new coaches last year, this season all coaches are returning.

In the South Forreston is the defending 1A State Champion and despite losing talent to graduation they bring back a solid core. Eastland/Pearl City was 12-1 not losing until the 2A semi-final. They are hit hard by graduation but like Forreston have the tradition to regroup. Aquin returns many players from last year's young team and hope to contend for the South title. Milledgeville is rebuilding after a second-round loss to Forreston in the second round strong run in to Forreston. West Carroll, Amboy/LaMoille and Ashton/Franklin Center hope to surprise.

In the North, Lena-Winslow is loaded and favorites to win the division and our pick to win the state title in 1A. The Panthers were looking to make it two state championships in a row but were upset by Forreston in a classic semifinal battle. The Cardinals had identical 22-20 wins over Conference foes Milledgeville and Dakota before beating Lena-Winslow in the semifinal. Then in the title game, Forreston had a 44-6 rout over Camp Point.

Lena-Winslow has the senior backfield of Sean Ormiston and Isiah Bruce who will be a nightmare to stop. They will be a stingy defense with Bruce at defensive end Ormiston at linebacker and junior lineman Gennings Dunker. Both Bruce and Dunker have verbally committed to Iowa of the Big Ten.

Dakota hopes to make a run in the playoffs again. Last year they knocked off previously unbeaten Ottawa Marquette in the second round before a tough 22-20 loss to Forreston in the quarterfinals.

Orangeville brings back experience and Galena who has struggled in the past few years looks to get back to playoff contention. Durand/Pecatonica Coop continues to improve. Stockton hopes to rely on tradition and East Dubuque is rebuilding.

The NUIC the dominant small-school football Conference in the State has had 20 State champions. Now tied with three State championships each are Forreston, Lena-Winslow, Galena, Dakota and, Aquin. Stockton has two and with the most title-game appearances with six. Orangeville, Eastland/Pearl City, and Amboy have one state crown each. Coaches in Lena-Winslow's Ric Arand and Dakota's Jerry Lano lead the most state titles with three each.

Two years ago Forreston was the favorite to repeat as state champions. And instead, Lena-Winslow beat them and won the State Championship. Then last year Lena-Winslow hoped to repeat as state champions and Forreston avenged an earlier season loss beating them in the semi-final and going on to win the State title.

For a look at state hardware won in all sports go to the NUIC Sports Facebook page.

Predictions

North

Lena-Winslow, Dakota, Orangeville, Stockton, Galena, Durand/Pecatonica, East Dubuque.

South

Forreston, Eastland, Aquin, West Carroll, Amboy, Milledgeville, Ashton/Franklin Center.

Opening week features some interesting matchups in cross over games North vs South. Last year Dakota ended its season losing to Forreston, by two points on a two-point conversion pass that was caught just out of bounds in the quarterfinals. Forreston went on to win state for the third time in five years. This season Dakota opens with Forreston in a rematch. The Cardinals return enough to be my favorite to win the NUIC South. This will a good first game test for both.

Two teams that lost in the state semifinals last year in Lena-Winslow in 1A and Eastland/Pearl City in 2A will collide in Lena for the opener. E/PC has lost a lot but hopes players step up and they can make the playoffs again. Lena-Winslow my pick to win the 1A State Championship this year and win the North is loaded and hoping to reclaim the state title back.

Amboy will play Du/Pec at Durand. Ashton/Franklin Center is at East Dubuque a chance for both to start out with a win. West Carroll is at Galena. Milledgeville is at Stockton in a clash of two former Upstate teams now in different divisions. Both lost a lot from last year but have winning traditions.

Saturday afternoon Orangeville hosts Aquin in a battle of former Upstate teams who are both hoping to make the playoffs this year.

North

Lena-Winslow should have a good shot at winning the 1A state title. Dakota should be strong and Orangeville has some weapons. Overall the league should have good parity.

Lena-Winslow

Coach: Ric Arand

The backfield will be hard to stop in seniors Isaiah Bruce and Sean Ormiston. Kade Chrisman returns at quarterback. Ethan Gift and Gennings Dunker are both solid lineman. The defense will be stingy led by Bruce at end (who has verbally committed to Iowa) and Ormiston at linebacker and Dunker in the trenches.

Dakota

Coach: Joe Free

The Indians have quarterback Josh Clark a threat both throwing and rushing. A backup quarterback who can throw in Cade Moyer. Free said he could use Moyer as a gadget guy. Talented backs Trey Engelbrecht and Aden Cassidy and end Carter Drake have graduated. They are looking for someone to step up at running back in Evan Riggle, Quinton Heilemeier, Lucas Sutherland, Cade Wales or Ben Holste. Luke Schwarze is back as one of the top lineman in the conference. All conference cornerback Wyatt Rockey returns. Rockey and Jacob Kleckler will be the ends the quarterbacks will have as a target. Riley Jones linebacker. One setback us an injury to All-Conference kicker/punter Nolan Lentz.

Orangeville

Coach:Jay Doyle

Orangeville will be led by one of the best running backs in the league in Garret Rodebaugh. They also have Zach Baker at tight end, Carter Kleckler QB/cornerback.

Stockton

Coach: Jesse Snyder

They have one of the top offensive and defensive lineman in Drew McGovern. Garrette Buske will be the quarterback.

Galena

Coach: Ed Freed

After a rare three straight losing seasons, the Pirates hope to start turning things around. Peyton Bauer RB/LB and Henry Anderson quarterback hope to make a mark.

Durand/Pecatonica

Coach: Tyler Hoffman

In its third year of the Co-op, the Rivermen hope to show continued improvement.

East Dubuque

Coach: Terry Breitbach

Jonah Hayes will anchor the defense at linebacker. Trey Culbertson end/cornerback.

Despite losing a lot to graduation defending state champion Forreston is our pick to win the South as they still have a strong core. Aquin and Eastland hope to be playoff teams. West Caroll, Amboy and Milledgeville hope to surprise with Ashton/Franklin Center hoping to get a win this year after going 0-9 last season.

Forreston

Coach: Kyle Zick.

While Zick won a state title in his first year as head coach. They are our favorites to win the South this season. They have Dom Christensen RB/cornerback, Bailey Cullor at quarterback, Ethan Mulder at rb/linebacker and a talented lineman on both sides of the ball in Derek DeVries.

Eastland/Pearl City

Coach: Jared McNutt

While E/PC lost a lot to graduation from last years 2A semifinal team. They have back lineman Eli Dertz, Bryson Sturtevant and rb/lb Braedon Herren.

Aquin

Coach: Broc Kundert

The young team went 45-5 last year just missing the playoffs. This year they return a strong core in QB/cornerback Will Gustafson, running back Ethan Yount, end/lb Andrew Bowman and lineman Brady Carlisle.

West Carroll

Coach: Jayson Leitzen

They have one of the best linebackers in Zach King. Cornerback Aiden Sullivan, DB/cornerback Michael Popkin, quarterback/cornerback Derek Tracy and lineman Kody Sipe. Tracy and Popkin will be a threat combo via the air. in the NUIC.

Amboy 

Coach: Gary Jones

They have one of the best receivers in the league and a solid defe4nsive back in Marcus Winn. Hunter ZSimmerly is at quarterback and Mario Carvahol is a solid kicker/punter.

Milledgeville

Coach: Gary Wroble

Unbeaten until running into state champ Forreston. The MIssiles will have to rebuild losing lots of those players from last season. Leading the way tight end Marcus McKenna.

Ashton/Franklin Center

Coach: Brad Winterland.

You have to respect them for not going to eight-man football. They hope to notch a win or two this season.