Since the birth of the Lincoln-Way East football program in 2001, the Griffins have been nothing but successful.
All they have accomplished under Rob Zvonar, the only head coach they have known, is qualify for the playoffs every one of their 17 seasons. Included is a state championship in 2005, a second-place finish in 2012, two seasons that ended in the semifinals and four others, including 2016, that ended in the quarterfinals.
The remarkable run, of course, has continued in 2017 as the Griffins (13-0) will seek their second state title at
7 p.m. Saturday when they tangle with Loyola in the Class 8A state championship game at Huskie Stadium on the Northern Illinois University campus in DeKalb.
“It has been a special season,” Zvonar said during this week’s conference call with media from around the state. “It’s tough to compare this with other seasons, we’ve had so many excellent groups. But few of them got to Week 14 with a 13-0 record.”
The Griffins, who have been ranked No. 1 most of the season, have conquered a difficult schedule and secured their 13th win last week when they beat Maine South for the second time, 24-14, in Frankfort. The two also met in Week 2 in Park Ridge, when East prevailed, 28-26.
“We haven’t ducked anyone,” Zvonar said when the schedule was mentioned. “You feel fortunate if you beat Maine South once in a career, much less twice in a season.”
Every team develops its own identity, but these Griffins perhaps had a little extra work to do in that regard.
That’s because Lincoln-Way North closed after the 2015-16 school year. Several outstanding North football players transferred to East, while some Griffins moved to Lincoln-Way Central, and some Knights shifted to Lincoln-Way West. Central and West both reached the quarterfinals this season.
“Of our 22 starters, 11 started their high school careers at East and 11 spent two years at North,” Zvonar said. “Coach [Jeremy] Cordell’s Central team had eight all-conference players – we had nine – and 13 of the 17 between the two played sophomore football together at East.”
So, there was a period of getting acclimated to new – and yes, talented – teammates.
“We had lots of numbers last year,” Zvonar said. “We got the guys together and told them the guy next to you could wind up being your college roommate or the best man in your wedding some day.” It was a way to emphasize they were on the same team in this world.
For their part, the new Griffins and those who had grown up Griffins got right to work. This team’s success is evidence.
“These guys literally have taken every opportunity to improve every day,” Zvonar said. “Not only that, they represent themselves within the walls in our school and in the community very well. I’d put this group in front of the community at any time, and that’s special.
“Also, we have lots of good students on our roster. Our key players are our some of our best students, and that’s fun.”
A couple of shining examples are quarterback Brendan Morrissey and defensive end Devin O’Rourke.
“Brendan Morrissey’s brother [Liam] was an all-state running back in 2014 and ’15,” Zvonar said. “Brendan was the quarterback as a freshman and sophomore, and those two teams went
“Last year, we had two good senior quarterbacks, but Brendan was a good enough athlete that we kept him at running back behind Nigel Muhammad. He pound for pound is the fastest, strongest and smartest kid. He has a 33 ACT and a 4.7 GPA on a 4.0 system. We knew we had a chance to be successful with him running things.”
Morrissey has rushed for 1,1016 yards, averaging 6.5 per carry, and 10 touchdowns while also completing 93 of 135 passes, 68.9 percent, for 1,442 yards and 20 touchdowns with only two interceptions. He has averaged 10.7 yards per pass attempt, the type of figure reserved for a select few.
“He may not throw more than 10-15 times in a game, but he’s very accurate and makes big plays in the passing game,” Zvonar said.
Then there’s the monster, the 6-foot-6, 250-pound O’Rourke.
“You have to put Devin O’Rourke right near the top of the linemen we have had, right up there with the Adam Gettises,” Zvonar said. “He demands double and triple teams. He will play in the Under Armour All-American Bowl in January. I’m excited about that because my family will be going to Disney World because of it.
“He has a GPA over 4.0 and a 27 ACT and could go anywhere in the country, but he’s 100 percent committed to Northwestern.”
Much like he and his teammates are 100 percent committed to the Griffins. Yes, there is talent in the halls at Lincoln-Way East, but without the work this group has put in, Loyola would be facing a different opponent Saturday night.