The Lincoln-Way East Griffins returned to Frankfort to play a home game after a pair of long road trips to begin their 2016 season. And after 416 combined miles on the road, taking them to two states and a pair of college campuses, the Griffins learned right in their back yard that the journey to Champaign will be a long one.
The standings will show a first tally in the loss column for the Griffins, who came up just short in their 35-30 loss to rival Homewood-Flossmoor last Friday. But squaring off against a fellow top-5 opponent in the state so early in the year was bound to have its positives, regardless of outcome. And while the Griffins would have liked to earn a victory, they were able to learn things – good and bad – about themselves in the close-knit affair.
“Whether we had been a point ahead or five points behind (at the end), you find out a lot about yourself when you play one of the best teams in the state,” Rob Zvonar said. “That’s the kind of game you want early to get a measuring stick of where you’re at, and it’ll definitely serve us well down the road.”
The goods were evident Friday night. The Griffins offense scored on each of their first three possessions, including two touchdown receptions by wide receiver Jeremy Nelson. The senior, who has dealt with myriad injuries since his sophomore year, continued his red-hot start to the season and finished with nine receptions for 136 yards. The 14-0 start was the first time the Vikings had trailed by multiple scores since the 2014 8A state title game.
It was a mixed night for the defense, which seven days earlier pitched their first shutout against Belleville West. The Vikings’ high-powered offense went scoreless in the third quarter, and the Griffins defense held their ground in the game’s final minutes to give the offense one last chance to win the game trailing by five.
The mistakes were just as clear, too. Losing a 14-0 lead at home, throwing an interception 22 yards from the end zone in the game’s final minute, a blocked punt and a missed field goal all culminated in the Griffins’ first loss of the year.
But if the Griffins needed to learn those lessons, they’re glad to have done it in early September instead of November. One of the top conferences in the state makes wins hard to come by, but also gets teams ready for the postseason. Friday night was certainly a playoff atmosphere, as was the opponent.
“It’s nice to play a caliber team like this early in the season so we know what we’re looking for in playoffs,” offensive lineman Sam Diehl said. “They’re a hard, physical team. So we’ll be expecting that in the playoffs.”
The Griffins may have also learned a valuable lesson about leadership. It was a noted point of interest in Zvonar’s discussions with the team during practice week. On Wednesday the head coach took a dozen or so seniors and a handful of juniors aside and discussed the importance of speaking up in situations that arose, both on and off the field. Leading by example isn’t always enough, he told his leaders.
“We just want to earn the respect of our teammates and we’ve got to make sure they’re all on the same page,” senior quarterback Jake Arthur said. “We’ve got to stay focused, (to) take ownership of this team. Everything revolves around each other, so we’ve got to make sure we’re on the same page.”
It’s a learning-on-the-go development for the Griffins, who have done an admirable job merging two schools, programs and starters together while dealing with state-title aspirations. That includes leadership, which in a program as prestigious as Lincoln-Way East is earned, not given. Zvonar has made it a point to rotate different captains each week, but he let it known to his leaders that he’s expecting more as the season progresses.
And that’s why last Friday’s loss stung, but didn’t sear. The Griffins have improvements to make, and time to do it.
“There’s no doubt we got an early taste of what playoff football can be like,” Zvonar said. “This will serve us well down the road. If we’re not winning, at least we’re learning.”