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LOWELL — Each of the last two years, Lowell coach Keith Kilmer knew what to expect.

Most of the team returned, including starters at skill positions. Veteran quarterback Ethan Igras was a known commodity, and tailback Tyler Wildman carried the run game. On top of that, the Red Devils’ nasty defense was loaded all over.

Those certainties don’t exist this year for the five-time defending sectional champs. But they’re still No. 7 in The Times’ preseason Top 10, and there's plenty of pressure on them.

“For these kids, who wants to be the team that breaks the streak now? That’s the motivation,” Kilmer said.

“It becomes a respect thing. We were ranked eighth (in Class 4A) in the state in the preseason. Are we the eighth team in the state? No. But the program has built itself on respect, and our work ethic has to match that expectation.”

Kilmer said the top priority is to make sure the Red Devils can establish the run. But there’s also a four-way quarterback battle that will likely stretch into the regular season.

John Alessia III stepped in for Igras last season when the latter was injured, but Alessia will be sticking with his natural positions of wide receiver and defensive back. Sophomores Ryan Marx and Johnny Johnson, freshman Riley Bank and junior Cameron Stojancevich — a transfer from Hobart — are jockeying for position.

So far, no one has taken a clear lead. Marx threw four passes last season, but none of the others have varsity experience at quarterback.

“I think they’ve gotten a lot better as the summer has gone,” Alessia said. “We started the summer with simple stuff. As we’ve gotten further along, they’ve been seeing the coverages better, knowing where to go.”

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Alessia is Lowell’s only returning starter on offense, whereas the Red Devils bring back five on defense.

Trevor Matovina returns to anchor both lines, and outside linebacker Aaron DuBord is the leading returning tackler. Alessia earned First Team All-Area honors last season thanks to his four interceptions.

Senior defensive linemen Blake Jansky, Chandler Austgen and Michael Langen departed and took 48 tackles for loss with them, but DuBord said they have had residual impact on this year’s team.

“I think our seniors last year did a really good job of showing these guys the ropes,” DuBord said. “They’re all competing; they all seem like they’re hungry for a spot.”

Kilmer and DuBord both said Lowell is a completely new team, but the expectation to win sectionals remains. The competition, however, should be stiffer this year.

Lowell edged Morton 20-14 in last year’s sectional championship, and the Governors return multiple players with Division I offers and one of the Region’s top quarterbacks in Credell Prather.

The Red Devils know they’ll have to continue improving to keep their streak alive, and Kilmer scheduled Class 6A opponents Crown Point and Portage with that in mind. It’s about being ready in Week 10, not Week 1.

“We’re talented but inexperienced,” Kilmer said. “So once that experience catches up to their talent, we feel like we’re gonna be OK. How long is that gonna take? We don’t know. As long as we get better each day, we get better each week, we feel we’re pretty confident we’ll be alright.”

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Porter County Sports Reporter

Robbie Weinstein covers Porter County prep sports and Valparaiso University athletics for The Times. You can find the Vanderbilt University and Northwestern University grad posted up on the nearest field of play or in front of the TV.