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Lincoln Way West quarterback Justin Keuch (11) throws the ball against Joliet Catholic at Lincoln Way West High School in New Lenox, Illinois, Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012. | Michael DiNovo~For Sun-Times Media
Lincoln-Way West senior quarterback Justin Keuch had times during the summer when he thought he needed a little extra work.
“I’d call one guy to come out and work with me, and 10 would show up, the whole receiving corps,” he said. “You’d have to see it to believe it.”
The freshest memory for Keuch and West was the finish of last year’s Class 5A quarterfinal. Keuch was stopped inches from the goal line on a 2-point conversion attempt in overtime that would have meant victory over Joliet Catholic. Instead, the Hilltoppers escaped 21-20.
The Warriors, 8-4 in 2012, feature 15 returning starters and are leaving nothing to chance as they prepare to open at home Friday against Sycamore.
“The motivation comes down to those inches,” said Keuch, a dual-threat quarterback who threw for 1,205 yards and nine touchdowns as a junior. “One more rep in the weight room, maybe we get a little bit better on the field, make that one more play and move on.”
In addition to Keuch, tailback Javier Montalvo (1,007 rushing yards in 2012), fullback Victor Rojas, tight end Mason Mahoney, wide receiver Jake Robbins, tackle Brennan Mulroe and center Griffin Sullivan return on offense. Mulroe is a three-year starter who played right tackle the last two years and has been shifted to left tackle. Sullivan is sidelined with an injury but may be back to open the season.
The defense is even more stocked with veterans. The Gray twins, safety Andrew and linebacker/safety Alex, are three-year starters. So are tackle Keegan McShane and end Josh Hilt. Tackle Ray Rodriguez, end Sean Evans and linebackers Zach Speaker and Nick Watson were regulars last season.
“It would be tough to play against our defense,” Mulroe said.
Coach Dave Ernst noted the Warriors still are young in spots.
“But we have 15 starters back from a quarterfinal team and junior and sophomore classes that will provide some help,” he said. “We have six three-year starters if you count Keuch, who started one game at quarterback as a sophomore.”
“We definitely have a lot returning,” Keuch said. “We have high expectations and the team to do it. With a little work in the O-line, we’ll be good.”
The offensive line is an area where the Warriors are not heavily experienced.
“It’s weird,” Mulroe said. “I’ve always been one of the younger guys in the line. Now I’m not. But we’ll be OK. I’m excited. The key will be if everyone stays focused all year.”
Ernst said sophomores Bryan Brokop and Justin Witt will help in the offensive line. The master plan is to continue improving.
“We are trying to get better every week,” Ernst said. “If we stay healthy we should be good. Our guys got a taste of playoff wins last year — and what it feels like to lose.”
The Warriors didn’t like the latter emotion, and they’re going the extra mile to help prevent it from happening again.
“Our goal is to play 14 games and win the last one,” Alex Gray said.