EUREKA — The moment the Eureka College football team had been waiting for finally arrived at 4:15 p.m. Thursday.
That was the time the Red Devils took McKinzie Field and officially opened preseason camp for the 116th season in program history.
It came after months, weeks and days of steadily rising anticipation, all building to this.
Sure, the real competition doesn't begin for another 23 days, when the Red Devils host Knox in the eighth annual Lincoln Bowl on Sept. 7. But if you ask this group, there's just something special about that first day in helmets with a new squad, when returning players mesh with newcomers and fresh bonds begin to form.
"I had butterflies this morning when I woke up," said senior quarterback Drew Barth (Minonk, Ill./Fieldcrest). "I just get that little feeling in my stomach, like 'Here it goes again.'
"There's nothing like the first day of camp."
Kurt Barth, EC's winningest coach in program history, has spent the summer piecing together a roster that can compete and preparing for the season in a quiet Reagan Athletic Complex. He's more than ready for the building – and the campus' — atmosphere to change.
"College life is terrible during the summer, if you ask me," the 11th-year coach said. "Around here, it's dead. It's too quiet. You start getting teams back in, you start getting students back on campus, it adds a little bit of life.
"I'm just ready to get everybody in and get going."
There's a long a way to go for these Red Devils to measure to up to the program's recent achievements.
In the past three years, the maroon and gold has compiled a 25-7 record, captured two conference championships and qualified for back-to-back NCAA Division III playoffs.
Last season, the Red Devils went 9-2 on the season and 6-1 in their debut campaign in the Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference.
This fall, EC is looking to head into the season with around 90 players on the roster, toting 14 players returning with starting experience and approximately 46 newcomers.
Among them are 10 of the 15 EC players who received All-NACC recognition last November.
The returning first teamers include junior defensive lineman Jon Jackson (Peoria, Ill./Richwoods), senior defensive back Trevon Moore (Aurora, Ill./Waubonsie Valley) and senior return specialist James Douglas III (Orlando, Fla./Deltona).
Moore, who also earned all-league accolades in the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference in 2016 and 2017, made a career-high 31 total tackles, broke up 14 passes and snagged two interceptions last season.
Douglas paced EC in kick return yards (357), and punt return yards (83), and made 17 receptions and seven rush attempts, while Jackson found a home for himself on the defensive line.
After transferring from NAIA Division II St. Francis, Jackson started every game, recorded 36 total tackles, tallied 3 ½ sacks, made two fumble recoveries and scored one touchdown at Lakeland.
"Coming to Eureka, I felt more at home, and it felt more like they put a personal interest in me," said Jackson, who was eager to get through the series of team meetings that led up to practice. "I'm just ready to get those pads on again."
EC also returns a pair of second-team all-league linebackers in Austin McCarty (Oakwood, Ill./Oakwood) and Mason Diederich (Washington, Ill./Washington), along with second-team all-league defensive back Matt Sutton (Dunlap, Ill./Dunlap).
The former pair combined for 104 total tackles, while the latter made 18 and broke up nine passes, including a critical deflection on fourth down against Concordia Wisconsin.
Drew Barth, fullback Wesley Burris (Monmouth, Ill./Monmouth-Roseville), offensive lineman Martin LeCesne (Joliet, Ill./Joliet West) and kicker/punter Tanner Kuhne (Princeton, Ill./Princeton) all received all-league honorable mention.
Coach Barth said he's excited to see which other players will emerge as key contributors this season. Sutton, one of eight players selected for the squad's leadership council, echoed his sentiment.
"I feel like we have so much talent coming in on both sides," Sutton said. "I can't wait to see how it plays out during camp. I know our coaches will put us in the right position."