FRANKFORT – The crowd at Lincoln-Way North High School shook the stands and cheered at the top of its lungs Friday for their unbeatable football team.
North players faced off against Lincoln-Way West in their final game of the regular season – one of many games in their final year at the school. Next fall, Lincoln-Way District 210 officials plan to close North – one of the district’s four schools – to resolve the district’s financial crisis.
But the football team’s resolve remains strong, as does the enthusiasm of fans and the community’s support.
“These kids are really embracing what this year is,” said Amy Bajic, a Lincoln-Way North Athletic Boosters spirit wear director who was selling Phoenix-themed clothes at Friday’s game. “They’re not down in the dumps.”
Instead, Phoenix football players have proven unbeatable throughout the season, winning Friday’s game, 28-21, against West. The team grew closer this year, and its coach, George Czart, has stayed vigilant so players can be strong.
The legacy of the Phoenix football team still is unwritten.
“We’re in the process of acting that out. I hope it’s poetry in motion; a fitting end for such a short life,” Czart said.
Focused on winning
Czart said he and his team are not thinking about the district’s plan to shut down the 7-year-old North High School by next fall.
Instead he’s been focused on the task at hand: Ensuring the Phoenix football team wins every game. He’s kept things positive among the players and wants them to enjoy every moment they can.
“We’re out there to prepare for our opponents. We make sure [North’s closing] is not a distraction for what we need to accomplish on the game field,” Czart said.
That goal is shared by many players on the team, such as senior Pat Troike, a wide receiver and safety.
“We’re kind of using [the closing of North] to our advantage. We want to go out with a bang and leave this community with something special,” he said.
The Phoenix football team has been undefeated this season. Troike said the team is communicating so well they can tell when a player is feeling down and always know what to say to make him feel better.
“We connect amazingly well out there,” Troike said.
That connection is evident to Frankfort resident Tony Schlott, whose children attend North. The community support for the team has been “100 percent” and even aspiring football players from area middle schools are coming to the games, he said.
“They work hard. They pick each other up. These guys are like a real family,” Schlott said.
Frankfort resident Leah Peters, who was at Friday’s game to see her son, Joe Peters, play, said she’s been excited for the team.
“This has been a very trying time for them. I am very excited to see what this year has to offer,” she said.
The news of the Lincoln-Way Board of Education’s 5-2 vote in August to shut down North devastated Czart and angered many parents and residents.
The district has incurred crippling multimillion-dollar budget deficits and state education officials directed Lincoln-Way to find a way to close the gap. The board opted to shutter one of the district’s four schools.
North opened in August 2008 and pulls students living in the boundaries of Summit Hill School District 161, which serves residents living in Frankfort, Mokena and Tinley Park.
The state-of-the-art high school – along with West – was constructed due to a $225 million building bond referendum approved in 2006 by 60 percent of voters at a time when the district’s population was projected to explode and more buildings were thought to be needed to educate the expected influx of students. Then the recession hit, and the growth didn’t come.
“[North] was opened to give kids in our district more opportunities, so it’s devastating to see now that these opportunities were only available to them for such a short period of time,” Czart said. “As far as North closing, it’s terrible but when some doors close, some open.”
Czart, who’s been the football coach for North since it opened, said he has no idea what’s in store for him going forward with North closing.
“He’s a good role model,” said Jake Arthur, a junior student and Phoenix quarterback. “He teaches us how to respect ourselves and our opponents.”
Lincoln-Way Superintendent Scott Tingley has said district officials will interview at the end of October and beginning of November head coaches districtwide and determine which will be at the remaining three high schools.
Czart was previously a football coach for Lockport Township High School District 205 and Providence Catholic High School.
When he began coaching the North team, it did not have any senior students and the team lost many games.
“But our kids were tough and they were determined. I remembered from the beginning I would take that team over any other because of the way they worked and how tough they were,” he said.
‘This is my family’
All the underclassmen students on the Phoenix team will move on to Lincoln-Way East High School, the other Frankfort school in the district, which is located about 5 miles from North.
Arthur said he doesn’t expect too much of an unusual transition to East, as he’ll be with some of the same players. Sophomore student Jake Buhe, a left guard on the team, said he thinks Phoenix team members will be welcomed by East football players.
“I hope so at least,” he said.
Buhe played football all his life but he joined the Phoenix team this summer. He said it’s sad North will close but players are looking forward to making it a good year.
Senior student Nick Kramer, a Phoenix right guard, said he feels bad for underclassmen who will have to move on to a new school and make new friends.
Players have come together as a family. Kramer, Troike and other upperclassmen players have looked out for younger teammates.
“We’re making sure we stay together on this journey and no one loses,” Kramer said.
Kramer improved his social skills and made a lot of friends while he was on the team.
“This is really all I got,” he said.
“This is my family. I live for this.”