Kyle Julius was on the phone with his friend when the news broke. Nigel Muhammad was with his girlfriend. Jack Carroll was in his bedroom, and Henry Palmer was refreshing Twitter with his parents.
Ask any of the 118 players on this year’s Lincoln-Way East team where they were on August 13, 2015, the night leaders of the Lincoln-Way School District voted 5-2 to close Lincoln-Way North and each will have an answer. The controversial decision that closed the school after just seven years of operating was a result of the lower-than-projected enrollment numbers and low state funding. The news rippled through Frankfort and the surrounding areas, with the reality sinking in for thousands of District 210 students that the place they called school would be different a year later.
But for Lincoln-Way East head coach Rob Zvonar, adverse and unique situations like the one his team dealt with the past calendar year will only strengthen its resolve. And for a community still building itself back up and rallying together, Zvonar knows his Lincoln-Way East Griffins have an opportunity to not only perform on the field, but become a rallying point with their play each Friday night.
“I think they’ve taken a lot of pride on overcoming something that was out of their control,” Zvonar said. “And coming here together and making a decision that, ‘I’m from here and you’re from there, but we both have the same goal.’ And we can get that done together.”
Five months after the decision to close the school became official, Zvonar called for a meeting of the returning players from both East and North. The Griffins had just completed an 8-3 campaign, advancing to the state playoffs for the fifteenth consecutive year since the school opened in 2000. North, led by George Czart, had reeled off a program-best 11 straight victories before a loss to Hinsdale Central in the 6A quarterfinals.
Meeting for about an hour in the Griffins’ Lair, Zvonar relayed to the North players – and reminded his own East players – his expectations and admittedly high standards. The tough love he and the coaching staff would show to the players established an important relationship, which Zvonar said was the main goal of the meeting.
It was also a critical moment for the team’s growth. Though many of the North and East players lived relatively close to one another, that January gathering was the first time many of them had met. There were nerves on both ends, especially for the North students who were meeting their new head coach. But just minutes into the meeting, offensive lineman Sam Diehl recalled, the team was already bonding, cracking jokes and sharing icebreakers. The common bond of a love for football, and the matching goal of wanting to earn the program’s second state title didn’t hurt, either.
That meeting parlayed into winter workouts, spring training on their own and into summer camp, when the team took the field for the first time together in early June. Now less than a week away from their season opener, a Week 1 tilt against John Adams in South Bend, the team is clicking both on and off the field as if they had been teammates forever.
“I feel like I’ve known these guys all my life,” said defensive lineman Kyle Julius, who played three seasons at North.
From a football perspective, the arrival of the North students also signified a boon to an already-dominant program. Outgoing Lincoln-Way East students from Mokena transferred to Central, leaving a few holes on the depth chart. But the surplus of numbers created healthy position battles at just about every position. It’s something Zvonar made clear in the January meeting – “the elephant in the room” – and the head coach credited the athletes for being open and putting the team first.
“It was difficult for a lot of kids that were expecting to play. There’s a lot of competition,” said Jack Carroll, a projected starting inside linebacker. “And it’s fun to watch everybody.”
There’s turnover each year for every high school football team, as seniors graduate and sophomores move to the varsity team. But the unique situation in Frankfort has forced the Griffins to mesh quickly, all the while doing so with expectations of a state championship following them.
"We told the men," Zvonar recalled of the meeting, "'Look to your left, look to your right, and there's a complete stranger there. But that complete stranger could end up being your college roommate, could end up being your best friend, could end up being in your wedding someday.
"The credit goes to the kids for being open and accepting to each other, and when your work hard at something a brotherhood starts to be created.
"It's been a lot of fun bringing these two worlds together and trying to become one, the best we can."