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BELLEVILLE • It was one of those days, and Ken Turner wasn't feeling it.

Maybe it was the downpour that washed over practice. Maybe it was the grind of the first week back at school. Maybe the Althoff football team just needed to hit somebody else.

Whatever the root cause, Turner, Althoff's coach, cut practice short and sent his team to the locker room in a fury of frustration.

“Every now and then you need to put them off the field,” Turner said. “It never hurts. You get to see what your captains are about. I walked through the locker room and they were having a players only meeting. They'll be better tomorrow.”

The Crusaders will be better with each passing week, if only because they are so green. With seven seniors on the roster, this will be one of the youngest teams in Turner's 11-year tenure.

That's not to say they won't be good. Althoff is the No. 4 small school in the preseason rankings.

The Crusaders were 9-2 last season and had their season end at the hands of a familiar face — Rochester. The Class 4A champions and perennial contender have tussled with Althoff four times in the last five seasons and won three times, including the last two. If they should meet again, it will be a new-look Althoff.

The Crusaders' offense counts one returning starter and one senior on the offensive line in Booker Grigsby (5-foot-10, 185 pounds). That one returning starter is Hayes Taylor (6-2, 225), who shifted to receiver after playing quarterback last year. He's adjusting to life at his new spot but has proven a quick study.

“His breakaway speed. His ability to catch the ball,” Turner said of Taylor. “He can block. He always tried to block from the quarterback spot. He's learning the route running. He's doing a good job.”

The new quarterback is junior Will Ache (6-2, 185), who saw limited varsity action last year at Belleville East.

Taylor joins juniors Nick Alberico (5-11, 170), Dylan Appleton (5-10, 167) and sophomore Jhayden Fridge (5-11, 145) as the primary receivers.

In the backfield are junior fullback Nolan Schmidt (6-1, 240), senior running back Cameron Rodgers (6-0, 197) and junior Jeremiah Miller (5-5, 155). Junior Curtis Sharp (5-9, 210) could factor into the mix, but he's a starting linebacker and Turner would prefer not to tax him on both sides if at all possible.

“Our juniors are tough,” Turner said. “But they have to grow up quick.”

The defensive backfield features Appleton, Alberico, junior Anneus Riggs (5-11, 185) and Jason Blackmon (6-1, 153). Appleton and Alberico started as sophomores and combined for nine interceptions and 68 tackles.

Sharp joins Schmidt, junior Darius Walker (6-2, 215) and senior Lorenzo Branson (6-0, 155) at linebacker. Schmidt had 65 tackles last season to lead all returning players.

Up front are junior defensive ends Mack Harris (6-3, 240) and Jeremiah Branson (6-1, 195) along with junior Nicholas Greenwood (5-10) and Grigsby, who will rotate in at defensive tackle.

“We always want to play fast, especially on defense,” Turner said.

Althoff will figure out just how good an offseason it had in short order. The Crusaders open their season at 7 p.m. Friday when they meet two-time defending Class 3A champion IC Catholic out of the Chicago suburbs at a neutral field at Illinois Wesleyan in Bloomington.

“We have to be in midseason form in Week 1,” Turner said. “If you want a challenge like that you want it Week 1. They're going to test you. They've got close to 20 seniors and a lot of guys that played the last two years for them.”

Week 2 doesn't get any easier. Althoff plays its home opener against No. 6 large school Vianney.

Turner believes this version of the Crusaders will continue to match the bar of excellence set by the strong classes of standouts to come before. High-level talent comes and goes, but the bedrock of the program is how the players go about their business on and off the field.

“They were under those guys and they saw what Althoff means to those guys and the ones before them. I don't have to say too much about it any more,” Turner said. “We had 24 kids the last two years go play college football. That alone brings those younger kids to be like those older kids.”

And yes, Turner kicked those older kids off the practice field, too.

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