BURLINGTON — It’s all about genuine affection for one another. Give Tom Aldrich that quality among his players and he’ll have a pretty encouraging sense of how a season will play out for the Catholic Central High School football team.

That certainly came into play when athletes reported for practice Aug. 5. As freshmen were trying to gain a comfort level, seniors the likes of Mike Pinnow, Bailey Wright, Jacob Surges, Joe Homan and Tegan Miles were welcoming them by helping with their equipment.

“We truly exhibit just this brotherly type of mentality toward each other,” Pinnow said.

That bond goes a long way in explaining why the Hilltoppers have not had a losing season since 1996 and have advanced to the playoffs every year since 1995. It also helps underscore why this team can never be counted out.

In 2011, after making three consecutive WIAA Division 7 championship game appearances, the Hilltoppers started 0-2 but advanced to the state semifinals. And last season, they started 0-3 before reaching the second round of the playoffs.

With some huge holes to fill, especially with the graduation of quarterback Carson Meinholz, who passed for 2,793 yards and 28 touchdowns in his two seasons as a starter, running back Grant Alderman (1,075 yards, 12 TDs, despite missing two games) and three-year starting lineman Cal Kempken, the Hilltoppers will again be a work in progress.

But Aldrich and his staff have a long track record for figuring things out.

The Hilltoppers’ traditionally potent offense should remain at a high level with two established receivers (Tyler Burzawa and Miles) and two quality linemen (Homan and Pinnow).

Burzawa made a strong impression as a sophomore last season with 27 receptions for 524 yards and five TDs. Right behind him was the 6-foot-8 Miles with 24 catches for 477 yards and six touchdowns. Miles and Burzawa respectively averaged 19.8 and 19.4 yards per catch.

Strongly in the mix to pass to them this season is senior Brett Gardner, who transferred from Lakes Community High School in Antioch, Ill., for the second semester of his junior year. Gardner, who was a backup last season, has the size (6-2, 215 pounds) and arm to make an immediate impact.

“He could easily be a lineman with his size, but he’s got the skill set (to be a quarterback) and we’re really excited to have him,” Aldrich said.

The defense may be more of a challenge with only linebackers Jeff Stemper and Burzawa and Wright and Miles in the secondary as returning starters.

Will this be another in a long line of successful Catholic Central teams? History strongly suggests that it will be.

“These kids just get it,” Aldrich said. “They’re looking out for each other.”

RETURNING OFFENSIVE STARTERS: 11-Tyler Burzawa, WR; 12-Tegan Miles, WR; 12-Mike Pinnow, OL; 12-Joe Homan, OL.

RETURNING DEFENSIVE STARTERS: 11-Jeff Stemper, LB; 11-Tyler Burzawa, LB; 12-Bailey Wright, DB; 12-Tegan Miles, DB.

AREA OF STRENGTH: Wide receiver. With the return of Tegan Miles and Tyler Burzawa, the Hilltoppers are fortified with a pair of big-play specialists. “The depth of our team is at the receiver position this year,” Aldrich said.

AREA OF CONCERN: Gardner is being asked to learn a fairly complex offense after transferring to Catholic Central. It remains to be seen how much he can master his responsibilities. The Hilltoppers’ offensive line is also in a state of flux with just two returning starters in Homan and Pinnow.

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