As he planned, Randy Kuceyeski returned from another weeklong hospital stay to coach his Libertyville football team from the sideline during its scrimmage on a festive evening at the Wildcats' stadium last Saturday.
His strength was up. His spirit was up.
His weight surprise was up.
"I've gained 2 pounds," he said with a shrug.
Chemotherapy and radiation have stressed Kuceyeski's voice and made him barely audible. But the man who's won more games than any football coach in the program's proud history doesn't have to scream to get his message across to his players this year.
And there's no "Win One For Kuz" in his repertoire.
"Our motto is, 'Return to Glory,' " Kuceyeski said.
Diagnosed in the spring with squamous cell carcinoma, which doctors found in his neck, Kuceyeski had announced a couple of years ago that the 2011 campaign would be his last. But he would prefer talking about his team, for which he has high hopes, rather than his own personal health.
He knows his Wildcats need to start winning consistently again.
Between 2002-2006, Libertyville won 54 games, including the Class 7A state championship in 2004. But since going 10-1 in 2006, they have not had a winning season and have missed the playoffs three of the last four years. They're 16-21 during that time and are coming off a 3-6 season that represented their lowest win total since posting the identical record in 1990.
Gone are all-state quarterback A.J. Schurr (2,227 passing yards, 21 touchdown throws, 468 rushing yards), who's off and running at Army, star wide receiver Jeremy Birck (59 catches-847 yards, 14 TDs), defensive lineman Matty Gilbert (Robert Morris) and all-conference offensive linemen Brady Schmidt and Matt Jacobsen.
Senior Hutch Herchenbach, who played running back last year, takes over at quarterback. Herchenbach will operate an offense that will go back to running the football more after the Wildcats ran a shotgun spread last year to take advantage of Schurr's athleticism.
Also back on offense are junior running back Brian Swift, who rushed for 233 yards last year, junior center Nick Carlino (6-0, 240) and big junior tackle Brandon Stanfel (6-5, 225).
"The success of our season will be determined by how well we rush the football," Kuceyeski said. "We will have a junior-dominated line, and the sooner they come of age, the more effectively we will run the football."
Defensively, the Wildcats boast nine players who saw the field regularly last season. It's because of all that experience that Kuceyeski expects the defense to be "vastly improved."
The veterans include two-way lineman Carlino, junior cornerback A.J. Schmidt, senior outside linebacker Max Ebert, junior outside linebacker Joey Salata, senior end Luke Mathewson, senior defensive back Peter Corrigan, senior inside linebacker Steve Skul, senior linebacker Bobby Borgeson and junior lineman Logan Klepac.
The kicking game could get a boost from strong-legged junior Austin Williams.
"We have great chemistry," Kuceyeski said. "I compare it to the '06 team. It's a great group of young men who really understand what it takes."
So does their coach.
Pos. Name Ht/Wt Yr.
WR Justin Guarnaccio 5-9/145 Jr.
OT Brandon Stanfel 6-5/225 Jr.
OG Dillon Sandberg 6-1/200 Sr.
C Nick Carlino 6-1/235 Jr.
OG Shaun McCracken 5-10/240 Jr.
OT Matsen Dziedzic 6-5/230 Jr.
QB Hutch Herchenbach 6-0/180 Sr.
FB Max Ebert 5-11/180 Sr.
RB Brian Swift 5-7/175 Jr.
TE Luke Mathewson 6-4/230 Sr.
WR Austin Williams 6-2/175 Jr.
Pos. Name Ht/Wt Yr.
DE Luke Mathewson 6-4/230 Sr.
DT Sean Sneen 6-1/285 Sr.
DT Connor Egan 5-10/205 Sr.
DE Michael Parker 6-3/215 Sr.
LB Max Ebert 5-11/180 Sr.
LB Joey Salata 5-10/170 Jr.
LB Drew Krinitsky 6-1/190 Jr.
LB Stephen Skul 6-1/180 Sr.
CB Clay Cusek 5-9/145 Sr.
FS Sam Styler 6-3/170 Sr.
CB A.J. Schmidt 5-11/170 Jr.