A little more than two months ago Lincoln-Way East head coach Rob Zvonar stood in front of his group and made a declaration. The Griffins had just watched a two-touchdown lead against rival Homewood-Flossmoor wilt away on their home turf, and the group of 100+ student athletes was understandably upset. But a minor setback in early September wasn’t going to define a team with realistic expectations of arriving in Champaign Thanksgiving weekend, and their head coach let them know it.
“We’ve got a good enough group to be the best team in state and win a state championship,” Zvonar told his team in Week 4, “and to put rings on your finger.”
In that speech Zvonar also referenced reminded his team that faltering in Week 3 was far different than doing so in Week 11 and having to clean out your locker and turn in your pads. And two months after that message, Zvonar’s Griffins awaited their Round 2 matchup in the 8A playoffs against Waubonsie Valley, staring at a Week 11 matchup with a chance to make good on their early-season miscues.
And unlike they did early in the season, the Griffins started strong, finished stronger and proved they have the moxie to contend for and compete for a state championship. They put together what Zvonar called their strongest half of the year, and maintained that dominance in the second half on their way to a 35-13 victory over the Warriors.
“The kids were dialed in,” Zvonar said. “They wanted to make a statement that we could play with one of the better teams in state. To have this kind of performance against a great team was what this program needed at this point in the year.”
No one, and certainly not the Griffins, doubted the talent the Warriors had on paper entering the second round. Though just 5-4, the Warriors had played a difficult schedule and won a Week 9 contest against Wheaton North to even qualify for the 8A playoffs. They proved their legitimacy with a Round 1 road victory over previously undefeated Hinsdale Central, ranked No. 5 in CSN’s preps power rankings entering the postseason.
“(We) went in thinking they were an undefeated team,” said running back Nigel Muhammad, who rushed for 79 yards and a touchdown. “They definitely showed last week hat they can beat an undefeated team, so we came into the game expecting them to be better than (their record).”
In that first-round game wideout Charles Robinson tallied four touchdown receptions. But in Round 2, against a motivated Griffins defense, Robinson was limited to a single catch, which came in the first quarter. The East defense made yet another statement, allowing just a single score until late in the fourth quarter, shutting down a Warriors offense which had posted 33 points seven days prior.
The offense took care of the rest, with Jake Arthur leading five touchdown drives – four of which ended in rushing scores – and compiling nearly 400 yards of offense in the victory. Knowing the Warriors played much of their talent both ways, the offense played its quickest pace of the year, routinely going no-huddle to keep the Warriors defense on its heels.
It paid off, as Joel Pallisard’s offense rushed for 269 yards. Arthur’s passes were short yet effective, as he competed 16 passes to five different receivers, including a 14-yard TD pass to Max Shafer, who made a circus catch in the back of the end zone to extend the lead to 28-6 before halftime.
The win placed the Griffins now two games away from that elusive trip to Champaign. A matchup Saturday evening against Maine South awaits, and Zvonar will make his group maintains that same level of intensity as they push toward their season-long goals.
“We know our kids aren’t satisfied,” he said. “And Maine South is going to bring a ton down here, but we’ll prepare like we did last week, take it one day at a time, get after it, and we trust our kids and hopefully we’ll play well.”