Homestead waltzed through league action unscathed at 7-0, two games better than Port Washington, which edged past the threesome of Germantown, Whitefish Bay and Cedarburg, all of which qualified for the postseason.
The Highlanders again are the favorite, but there aren't any cream puffs in this league, although they have University of Wisconsin recruit Shelby Harris to terrorize opposing offenses after he was named the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association's defensive player of the year.
Homestead has won five consecutive outright titles in a row and six in the last seven seasons, sharing the crown with Germantown and Cedarburg in 2002, the last time the Highlanders lost a conference game.
Competition should be alive and well in the North Shore as nearly 25 players with all-conference laurels in their back pocket are scheduled to return.
The Highlanders finished the regular season at 8-1. The 2006 state champs reached the D-1 title contest again but dropped a 31-7 decision to Hartland Arrowhead. It was the school's seventh consecutive and 14th overall playoff appearance.
Before the disappointing ending, Homestead had knocked off Appleton East (41-23), Bradley Tech (21-3), Hartford (27-14) and Stevens Point (22-13).
Homestead must fill spots left by the graduation of first-teamers in offensive linemen Mike Parish and Mike Smigelski, running back Brett Werner-Powell, linebacker Max Meckstroth and defensive back Alex Webb.
Second-teamers in wide receiver Justin Howard, and offensive lineman Adam LaDell and honorable mention defensive end Robert Hafeman also graduated.
Werner-Powell is headed to I-AA school Illinois State after being selected to the all-area second team, while Howard takes off to Minnesota State-Mankato. Webb was the league's secondary player of the year and a second-team Associated Press all-state selection, while Smigelski and Meckstroth were all-area second-teamers.
However, they get a bunch of talent back, starting with Harris, a 6-foot-3-inch, 225-pound senior who earned first-team honors from the AP after registering 59 total tackles, including seven for losses, and forcing three fumbles.
Also back are senior first-team punter and honorable mention quarterback Casey Barnes and senior honorable mention picks in running back Aric Daniels, tight end Josh Wichman and linebacker Julian Goodwin.
The Pirates went 5-2 in league action and were 6-3 overall in the regular season. They reached Level 2 in D-3, defeating Plymouth (13-7) before losing to New London (21-18) in their 17th overall appearance.
Port Washington welcomes back senior second-team running back Zac Moeller, senior second-team kicker and honorable mention punter Matt Wood and junior honorable mention defensive lineman Tim Lux.
Moeller gained 702 yards on 101 carries (7.0) and five touchdowns for 10 games.
The Pirates must replace first-teamers in offensive lineman Adam Pasbrig, wide receiver Robert Seer, linebacker Erik Mersereau and defensive end Bryan Steinmetz (an honorable mention choice at tight end), as well as second-teamers in defensive back Derek Peiffer and linebacker Josh Prochnow. Honorable mention quarterback Brock Loop and offensive lineman Brandon Melichar also graduated, but the bigger loss was that Melichar died in an auto accident.
Steinmetz made the all-area squad as a second-team defensive end/linebacker, while Mersereau was an honorable mention all-area performer.
Standout defensive end and tight end Chris Prom, was sidelined by an ACL knee injury last season, but will play at D-I Western Michigan, Mersereau will play at North Dakota and offensive lineman Matt Neumyer will suit up at D-II Concordia-St. Paul.
The Warhawks fought to a 4-3 mark in conference competition and wound up 5-4 overall. The 1998 and 2003 state titlists got hot again in the playoffs, reaching Level 4 in D-2.
They posted victories over Sussex Hamilton (14-10), Brookfield Central (17-0) and Waterford (35-0) before being eliminated by eventual runner-up DeForest (20-10). It was their 14th postseason appearance, where they've compiled an impressive 33-12 record.
The Warhawks, led by Phil Datka, entering his 40th season, must replace a ton of talent, including league offensive player of the year in running back Austin Stadler. Other first-teamers to graduate include offensive lineman Zach Neumann, as well as honorable mention selections in quarterback Nick Doedens, offensive lineman Tyler Jewell, tight end Ben Starke and defensive back Tony Sanicola.
Stadler was an honorable mention all-area choice after a performance that included 167 yards against Nicolet.
However, Germantown does return some key pieces in junior second-team offensive lineman Bryan Keys, senior second-team running back Jon Wolf, senior second-team defensive back Ryan Jefferson and senior honorable mention linebacker Jordan Flasch.
The Blue Dukes compiled 4-3 and 5-4 regular-season finishes, reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2004 and seventh time in history. They fell in their D-2 opener, 35-27 to Brookfield Central.
Whitefish Bay hopes to challenge without the services of such players as first-teamers Lars Knudsen at wide receiver, defensive player of the year Markez Prewitt and line mate Lazaro Rosales. It also must replace honorable mention choices in running back Ryan Pandl and defensive backs Andrew Gebel and Quentin Griffin.
Knudsen is slated to play at Yale University after catching 49 balls for 872 yards (17.8) and 11 touchdowns, numbers that landed him on the honorable mention all-area team. Pandl scampered for 795 yards on 133 tries (6.0) and 10 TDs.
However, the Blue Dukes get key personnel back in senior first-team quarterback and honorable mention punter Jimmy Sherburne and senior second-teamers in offensive lineman Eitan Babcock, tight end Dylan Gates and linebacker Matt Kowalsky and senior honorable mention offensive lineman Matt Ahlstedt.
Sherburne was an honorable mention all-area nominee after throwing for 1,769 yards and 17 scores while completing 115 of 189 attempts with only six interceptions. He added 164 yards and four rushing TDs.
The Bulldogs also finished a game above .500 in league play and overall before dropping their D-2 opener, 15-14 to Oshkosh North. They have made the postseason 11 times, all within the past 12 seasons.
Cedarburg must find replacements for standouts such as first-team tight end Chris Vanderventer and first-team defensive back B.J. Litz, the latter being an all-area second-team selection.
The Bulldogs also lost second-team choices in defensive back Josh Pendergast and linebacker and punter Derek Wolff, as well as honorable mention picks in offensive lineman Jacob Durham and defensive end Greg Krahn.
But Cedarburg will be a strong contender because it gets a load of senior talent back in the form of first-team defensive back R.J. Herron, second-team offensive lineman Zach Perkins, second-team linebacker Joey Fazio, honorable mention kicker Zak Suhar and honorable mention defensive end T.J. Hogan.
The Red Knights missed the postseason with a 3-4 league mark and finished 4-5 overall. Their only two playoff trips came in 2002 and '05.
Lutheran faces the challenge of replacing first-teamers in offensive lineman Paul Halstead (a second-team defensive end) and kicker and defensive back John Palese, second-teamers in quarterback David Enters and defensive end Darron Sherrill, as well as honorable mention performers in offensive lineman Preston Connors, offensive and defensive lineman Ryan Schnake and wide receiver Sam DuMez.
Enters and Palese were all-area honorable mention choices. Enters completed 136 for 242 pass attempts (56.2) for 1,711 yards and a beautiful 21-3 touchdown-to-interception rate.
They also will miss wide receiver Dan Borkhus, a preferred walk-on at NCAA Division I program Ohio, and running back and leading rusher Dante Holland, who will play at Rochester Community and Technical College.
The Red Knights do welcome back topnotch players in senior second-team selections Darius Harris at wide receiver and Adam Walker at punter and honorable mention pick Joe Borkhus at receiver.
The Knights avoided the league cellar at 1-6 and were 1-8 overall. They haven't made the playoffs since their only appearance in 1989.
They must fill the holes left by the graduation of second-team running back Colin Long and honorable mention selections in kicker and punter Cory Katzban, linebacker Billy Crass and defensive lineman Dan Taibleson.
Nicolet's lone returning all-league choice is junior honorable mention offensive lineman Ethan Peck.
Long finished with 495 yards on 99 carries (5.0) and seven scores.
The Black Hawks were skunked in North Shore action at 0-7 and went 1-8 overall. The school has made eight postseason appearances but none since 1997.
Second-team offensive and defensive lineman Eric Neece and honorable mention offensive lineman Nick Baltzell.
The Black Hawks also must replace leading rusher Brad Betts, who gained 571 yards on 113 attempts (5.1) and three scores.