Preps Talk

Lincoln-Way East dealt with adversity, kept things 'six inches in front of your face'

Preps Talk

Rob Zvonar makes it a point whenever possible to share with his team his favorite phrase: “Keep things six inches in front of your face.” It’s simple and indistinct, allowing his group of more than 115 players to analyze and relate it however they choose. The phrase meant something different to each of the Lincoln-Way East Griffins, but all embraced it and used it as the foundation to overcome adverse circumstances and string together a successful season that Frankfort and the surrounding communities won’t soon forget.
 
Fifteen months before the Griffins walked off their home turf for the final time – in a 34-31 loss to Maine South last Friday – the 117 student-athletes listened, watched and read as news surfaced that District 210 had voted 5-2 to close Lincoln-Way North High School after just seven years. The controversial decision meant relocating thousands of students at the remaining three Lincoln-Way schools – East, Central and West – and, though comparatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things, meant a shakeup of each school’s football program.
 
Zvonar rallied his team – both returning East students and incoming North students – that winter, holding a January meeting to act as the jumping-off point for a season filled with state-title expectations. The group bonded almost instantly, and camps and practices in the summer ran smoothly as if the group had been together the last three years.
 
The Griffins stumbled in their two main tests in the regular season, losing a 14-0 lead at home to rival Homewood-Flossmoor and being pummeled by Bradley in Week 8. But both those teams went undefeated, and the Griffins were utterly dominant in their seven regular-season wins, outscoring their opponents 308-62, and were as dangerous a group in the stacked 8A playoffs as any other 7-2 team.
 
The bracket also set up ideally for the Griffins. A first-round matchup against Taft resulted in a 64-14 victory. Waubonsie Valley upset Hinsdale Central in Round 1 that allowed the Griffins to avoid the undefeated Red Devils. East made easy work of Waubonsie Valley in a convincing 35-13 victory. At the same time, Maine South upset Barrington in the second round, giving East a second consecutive home game in the state quarterfinals.
 
That back-and-forth affair Friday night saw three ties and four lead changes, as the Griffins rallied from down 14-0 to take a second-quarter lead, and twice in the second half matched Red Hawks scores. Maine South manufactured a two-minute offense late in the fourth quarter to set up a game-winning field goal, leaving the Griffins two wins shy of a trip to Champaign.
 
And though the end result was a bitter taste in their collective mouths, Illinois’ largest team in number accomplished plenty in 2016. While any coaching staff dreams of having the depth East had at its disposal, it took Zvonar and his staff’s ability to sorth through the myriad talent and find the best combination of 11 young men to put on the field.
 
It started at quarterback, where North transfer Jake Arthur took the reins at quarterback while fellow senior Max Shafer transitioned to wide receiver, his original position. Arthur threw for more than 1,700 yards and 18 touchdowns and added four scores on the ground. A wildly talented receiving corps saw four different players catch 17 or more balls, led by Nick Zelenika (64/685/6), Jeremy Nelson (55/879/10) and Ken Anderson (20/304/4), the last of whom was limited to seven games with an ankle injury.
 
The running backs spearheaded the offense, and did so with a dynamic three-man attack behind a bruising offensive line. Nigel Muhammad turned in a splendid senior campaign, rushing for 879 yards and a team-best 20 touchdowns on just 147 carries. Juniors Brendan Morrissey and Ryan Scianna combined for nearly 900 more yards and 12 touchdowns, and the team as a whole rushed for more than 2,300 yards and 45 scores.
 
Defensively, All-State defensive end Devin O’Rourke proved why he’s got multiple Big Ten offers, racking up 95 tackles, 19 tackles for loss and nine sacks. A dominant defensive line also included Kyle Julius, Zack Tencza and Brian Ravetto. Those four combined for 19 sacks and took plenty of pressure off an inexperienced secondary.
 
The names of talented East players go on, and that’s exactly the point. Depth is great; too much depth can become a disruption. But Zvonar made it clear to his players in that first meeting that sacrifice was necessary. Keeping the team’s collective goals six inches in front of their faces, not worrying about playing time, statistics or off-the-field controversy with the school’s closing, was paramount to the team’s success.
 
And by in large they were able to accomplish just that. None of what the Griffins accomplished would have been possible had the team not looked their main goal in the eye, six inches in front of them, and attacked it relentlessly each day.