BLOOMINGTON — Some of the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin football coaches might be wondering about Illinois Wesleyan’s defense after it suffered heavy graduation losses.
IWU coach Norm Eash isn’t among that group.
The Titans were picked to finish third in the CCIW preseason coaches’ poll announced Tuesday. North Central, as expected, was selected to win its seventh straight league title and third outright crown in a row. Wheaton was tabbed second.
Coaches could not vote for their own teams.
“People think Wesleyan will really be rebuilding, and that’s misleading because our front seven (on defense) will be as good or better,” said Eash. “The secondary is probably our biggest question mark.”
The Titans finished second in the CCIW last season before losing a triple-overtime thriller to Monmouth in the first round of the NCAA Division III playoffs.
IWU begins practice Sunday ahead of the Sept. 1 season opener against Aurora at Tucci Stadium.
The Titan defense lost three first-team CCIW performers (end Ryan Jenkins, linebacker Ryan Gresko and cornerback Scott Wenzel) along with two second-team selections (linebacker Ben Houk and safety P.J. Cummings). Defensive lineman Trey Cunningham, another second-team pick, returns.
“As a coach you have to be careful to step back and take a look at things,” said Eash, who will enter his 27th year as IWU’s coach. “I thought we had a great year at 9-1 (in the regular season) and being a playoff team.
“It’s ours to prove to everyone that we’re capable of being a conference champion. That’s the same every year. I’m a little disappointed we were not 2. I thought we would be 2 or 3.”
The Titans lost only one starter on offense. Eash reported quarterback Rob Gallik has thrown all summer after undergoing labrum surgery in the offseason. IWU also expects junior tailback T.J. Stinde to be at full strength after he was hurt in last season’s third game with a knee injury that eventually required surgery.
“He’s ready to go and very anxious to make up for lost time,” said Eash of Stinde, who set numerous state high school records at Lexington. “With him out of the lineup there were opportunities for others. Sean Conley came on in the last two ball games. He’s a load.”
IWU begins CCIW action at home Sept. 29 against Millikin. The Titans’ fate could be decided in consecutive road games Oct. 20 and 27 against Wheaton and North Central, respectively.
“The conference should be very competitive,” said North Central coach John Thorne, a 1969 IWU graduate. “The team that plays with the fewest penalties, plays great defense and controls the football should have the best opportunity to win the CCIW.”
Bloomington High School graduate Tyler Dicken took over as North Central’s quarterback as a freshman in the middle of last season and led the Cardinals to the second round of the Division III playoffs. He will battle former starter Spencer Stanek.
“It’s been a great competition between them,” said Thorne. “We’re very anxious to see who comes out as the starter at the end of fall camp.”
Here are the results of the CCIW preseason football coaches’ poll with first-place votes in parenthesis and total poll points.
1. North Central (6)..............48
2. Wheaton (2).....................43
3. Illinois Wesleyan............36
8. North Park..........................7