The Chicago Thunder’s next scheduled game isn’t until May, before moving on to their Mid-States Football League schedule. But, for an organization that has made the playoffs for 22 consecutive years, football is an everyday thing and they’re already looking ahead to the season.
“It’s going to take some time to tell how we’ll be, with so many people turning over,” President of Football Operations Steve Sliwka told Developmental Football USA. “We’ve been in the playoffs 22 straight years and I don’t think that’s going to change once we get these quarterbacks some familiarity with the receivers. I think we’re going to do pretty well.”
“We’ve got Mason Polich that played for Benedictine University and T.J. Trepanier, who played at Carthage University in Wisconsin,” Sliwka said.
Whichever quarterback wins the job, he should have plenty of protection up front by an offensive line that is led by 6-foot-8, 305-pound left tackle Baptiste Williams.
“He’s probably our best player coming back,” Sliwka said. “He played with the arena team, the Chicago Blitz last year and he’s looking to play with a pretty high level arena team in Michigan. He’s been with us three years. When he came here he couldn’t even get into a three point stance, but he’s gotten really, really good.”
Then, at wide receiver, there will be plenty of solid options to distribute the ball to, in an offense that has the potential to put up some pretty big numbers.
“At wide receiver, we’ve picked up right around four new wide receivers,” Sliwka said. “The biggest one is around 6-foot-4, 185 pounds, out of St Francis University, Troy Torrence. Mason Polich’s brother Drew is a wide receiver. He’s a lot like Wes Welker. He’s small, 5-foot-9, maybe around 180 pounds, but he will probably be one of the best possession receives in the league. They’re both new to the Thunder.”
As if that’s not a whole arsenal of offensive firepower, the Thunder also picked up former Southern Illinois Saluki, LaSteven McKinney.
“I’ll be honest, after one year with us, he’s probably going to get a shot to go somewhere,” Sliwka said.
Those three, joining a unit that also features 2016 Honorable Mention All-Star Jalen Grace, will be a lot to handle for most defenses in the MSFL.
“Jalen is a smaller guy, probably around 5-foot-8,” Sliwka said. “He caught two touchdowns in the southern conference playoff game. He’s a really good guy coming back for us.”
The offense will be coached by new offensive coordinator Carlos Craig, who comes with several years of junior college and arena coaching experience.
“It’s going to be a new look,” Sliwka said. “He’s coached the Milwaukee Bonecrushers arena team, he coached at College of DuPage and he coached the Canton County Eagles which were pretty much the end-all, be-all of semipro football in AAA.”
The Thunder had the MSFL’s No. 1 defense one year ago, but they’ll have to shore up some key losses in 2017. When all is said and done, they should still be a very good defense and may still hold on to their No.1 title.
“We lost Kyle Grant, our defensive end and we lost Orlando Hood, a linebacker,” Sliwka said. “Grant was defensive MVP, he’s going to the Lincoln-Way Patriots. Other than that, we’re returning pretty much everybody. We’re also picking up a lot of college talent.
Second-Team All-Star linebacker Rod Harrington returns and is joined by another standout linebacker, Zak Peterson. The defense has also added Darel Middleton, who played for Clemson his freshman year and cornerback Marquette Privott from Eastern Illinois.
Of the MSFL’s 14 teams, four from each division will move on to the playoffs and the Thunder should have no problem clinching one of those spots for the 23 consecutive time, despite solid competition week after week.
“We’ve got some really good teams in our division,” Sliwka said. “I think the south division of the MSFL is as tough as any division in the county when it comes to spring ball.”
So far, the Thunder have added 29 new players to their roster and have lost fewer than 10 due to retirement or the desire to pursue other opportunities.
However, this season the Thunder are beginning a new chapter in their long history. This will be the team’s first season in their 23 years running without founder and former head coach Terry Thomas.
However, the organization still very much believes in Coach Terry’s vision and plans to stay the course with the way they have done things. This season, the Thunder have created helmet stickers in remembrance of Coach Terry that any player from any team is welcome to put on their helmet in honor of him.
“We’re going to be working with the Joliet Steelers youth program,” Sliwka said. “We’ve done some blood drives. Our owner died of kidney failure, so we’re going to help that cause. “We try to get involved in all of the communities around us.”