FULTON, Ill. — Coaches say it all the time: Staying healthy is one of biggest keys to a successful season in football.
Coach Patrick Lower believes injuries were the reason his Fulton Steamers were unable to make a repeat trip to the Illinois playoffs last fall.
"Our key is to stay healthy," Lower said. "I truly believe without a shadow of a doubt if we're healthy last year we're in the playoffs, and last year was probably the toughest schedule we've played in my 17 years here at Fulton High School."
Since the schedule isn't any easier this year, good health is a must for the Steamers.
And it all starts at the quarterback spot.
Tyler Sweenie returns to begin his third season as the starter. But he is coming off two consecutive years of rehabbing a torn ACL and has yet to play a complete season.
"I feel awesome, way better than last year," said Sweenie, the Second-Team Clinton Herald All-Area quarterback in 2014.
"It is, in my opinion," Lower said, "the single most important thing for any high school football team, especially when it's small schools like we are, you take one guy out and then you have to move another guy to fill his spot, and that guy was playing another spot and you've got to put him in, and it's tough, especially when it's your starting quarterback.
"Sweenie only played five-and-a-half games last year for us at quarterback. That really hurt."
Sweenie will direct an offense that also features second-team all-area lineman Kyle McLuckie and fullback Michael Pidde, two other seniors in the their third seasons as varsity starters.
"I have a better feeling coming into this season, being stronger, faster and I think we are stronger as a team than we were last year," Sweenie said. "The chemistry (is there). A lot of us are returning. We have a lot more experience as a team, and we know as a team what it takes to play on a Friday night."
Lower cites experience and leadership as two of the best qualities on the team.
"I think the strength of this team is going to be our overall veteran leadership," he said. "We've got four three-year starters (second-team all-area linebacker Cole McClary is the fourth) and several juniors that played a bunch of special teams last year and a bunch of situations on offense and defense and special personnel groupings and things such as that, so I don't think that with this group of guys the lights of a Friday night are going to be overwhelming. I think they're going to handle that part of it very well."
McClary also will see time on offense, and junior Austin Rash played on both sides of the ball as a sophomore.
Sweenie said the team's strength on offense was the running game.
"But I also think we'll be able to pass on any team in the conference," he said. "We have a lot of experienced receivers, and we have a ton of speed returning. I think we're quicker off the edge than any other team."
There is some size, too.
"We have Tyler Bruggenwirth, who is 6-3," Sweenie said. "He's going to be a fun target to throw to."
Senior receiver Tyler Paulline, another key returning player, said the offense should be fun to watch.
"On offense we've got a lot of speed, same as last year," he said. "We can put up a lot of points when we want to."
But, he also likes what the defense has to offer. He is one of the key returners there after earning first-team all-area honors in the secondary last fall when he made 96 tackles, knocked down seven passes and recovered three fumbles.
"On defense, we have a lot of speed, and we can shut people down," he said.
"We're a great team where we can be all-around. It can either be an offensive day or a defensive day."
Lower also is excited to have several other returning seniors -- tight end-linebacker Adam Hodge and two-way linemen Blake Dornbush, Cole Grant, Alex Martin and Taylor Tubbs. Lower also lists junior linemen Ethan Fish and Ian Frederick among key newcomers, along with a bunch of juniors: quarterback-defensive back Bryce Grant, lineman-linebacker Brody Mason, receiver-defensive back Nate McLuckie, tight end-linebacker Erik North, running back-defensive back Austin Schroeder, wide receiver-defensive back Jesse Singh, two-way lineman Nate Wierema, Bruggenwirth, receiver-defensive back Dylan Moshure and two-way linemen Zack Simons and Dustin Williams-Davis. A pair of sophomore linemen, Eli Pannell and Stanton Sikkema, also might contribute.
Coming off a 4-5 season and having had several other teams in recent years that just missed qualifying for the playoffs, the Steamers know the margin between winning and losing can be slim.
"Not giving up on every play and playing till the whistle and not giving up until the play is over," Sweenie said, pointing to things that can make a big difference.
"We can go back to every single game and we can show a couple of plays here or there that could have gone either way and made us win the game and could have made the game go the complete opposite way. We just have to make sure we're playing all the way to the whistle."
That is where the leadership of seniors such as Sweenie and Paulline could make a difference.
"Coming in as a senior, I have to take a role as a leader and have the younger guys look up to you and really set the tone as a leader and make an example for yourself, and I plan to do that," Paulline said.
"Even in practice the coaches look to me to lead the team in drills," Sweenie said. "I can't wait to be able to lead them on the field."
Paulline believes a successful season lies ahead.
"I think this is a playoff team," he said. "I can't wait to see what we can do."
Lower is excited, too, but he knows the Steamers will have to be at there best each week as they endure the tough schedule presented to Three Rivers Conference teams.
"Hopefully you see a team that every Friday night is prepared, and every Friday night is going to be competitive with anybody on our schedule," Lower said. "That's a pretty daunting task in itself with the schedule we have this year. It kind of rivals last year's schedule.
"Seven of our nine opponents had a winning record, six of them made the playoffs and three of them were quarterfinalists, so we've got a tough job ahead of us, and hopefully we can be competitive each and every night."