Trying to establish himself as a first-year head coach and striving to build a program at a school that is only four years old, Dave Ernst said he could see "the light at the end of the tunnel" in the last five weeks, since the second half of a 15-7 loss to Thornton.
"We lost but I saw things were coming together," Ernst said. "Our kids fought to the end. We reached their one-yard-line with 18 seconds left but a holding call brought the ball back. It was such a disappointment after fighting to get back into the game. We didn't want to feel that way again."
The setback left Lincoln-Way West at 3-3. But the Warriors have won four games in a row since then, including last Friday's 35-0 rout of Rochelle in the first round of the Class 5A playoff. They'll face their biggest test of the season against top-seeded and unbeaten Kaneland on Saturday in New Lenox.
Ernst, 47, isn't surprised by Lincoln-Way West's early success, which is rare for a start-up school. A 1983 graduate of Lincoln-Way (Central), he coached under Matt Senffner at Providence for 12 years, then coached with current Lincoln-Way East coach Rob Zvonar under Rob Glielmi at Lincoln-Way Central for eight years before joining Mark Vander Kooi's staff at Lincoln-Way West. When Vander Kooi became athletic director at Lincoln-Way East, Ernst got his chance.
"A lot of the stuff that Glielmi was teaching at Lincoln-Way Central rubbed off on Zvonar and me. In the 1990s, his program dominated the south suburbs among the public schools," Ernst said. "We have a lot of tough kids who want to win and are willing to do what they have to do to win.
"We have some talented kids--like tackle Colin McGovern, who is committed to Notre Dame, the best player I've been around in 24 years of coaching--but the biggest thing is their willingness to fight and claw and scratch and do everything they have to do to win."
Adam Slattery, a 6-foot-2, 167-pound senior who is a three-year starter at wide receiver, may not be headed to major Division I school but he is typical of the "fight, claw and scratch" type of player that has turned Lincoln-Way West into a winning program.
"It's cool to be part of a program that is so young, only four years old," Slattery said. "When we came in, we knew we were the ones who would start a tradition. We took it upon ourselves to make it the best we could. Winning makes everything right.
"We turned it around right away. We were overmatched without seniors. We were thrown into the fire right away. We found out how hard it is to win and how hard you have to work. The standard now is to win, make the playoff and establish ourselves as a state championship contending team.
"We want to set an example for others to follow. We want to show what it takes to win. We work hard in practice and in the summer and in the off-season. We are committed. Eighty percent of the team had 100 percent attendance for off-season lifting."
Slattery and the first class of graduates know it isn't easy to start a tradition. But he pointed out that Joliet Catholic and Lincoln-Way East had to start sometime. So he argues that there is no better time for Lincoln-Way West to start its tradition.
"That is the attitude of the first class to graduate," Slattery said. "How bad do you want to win? Like Joliet Catholic and Lincoln-Way East, we don't accept losing. Coach Ernst has done a great job. He knows how to win. He is the real deal. I wouldn't want any other coach."
Slattery is Lincoln-Way West's all-time leading receiver with more receptions for more yards and more touchdowns than anyone in school history. But he acknowledges that four years is hardly a record book, especially in a program that prefers running to passing.
"I wouldn't be opposed to seeing us throw 30 passes a game. But whatever we're doing, we're winning. I'd rather block or do whatever it takes to win," he said. "Until my freshman year, I thought of myself as a baseball player. But I like the atmosphere of football in high school, the team concept. How could you not want to be a part of that?"
Slattery, who grew up in Lansing, was a quarterback while playing for the New Lenox Mustangs and New Lenox Junior Knights from second through eighth grade. As a freshman at newly opened Lincoln-Way West, he was shifted to wide receiver. He was moved up to the sophomore team, then to the varsity.
Last year's team finished 7-3, losing to Joliet Catholic in the first round of the playoff. With five returning starters on offense and five on defense, Ernst was optimistic about 2012. As a Class 5A school in a Class 7A league, however, he understands the odds aren't in his favor.
Perhaps it is a good thing that Ernst believes in luck. "From all my years with Senffner at Providence and Glielmi at Lincoln-Way Central, one of things you see is luck. You have to stay healthy. At Lincoln-Way Central, we lost 11 starters one year after thinking we'd make a run (at the state title)," he said.
"I believe in luck. Sure, you make your own luck most of the time. But luck is involved in winning a state title and making a long run in the playoff. The football bounces in weird ways sometimes. The whole idea is not to get distracted."
Ernst believes he has what it takes to contend with a Kaneland team that has lost only twice in the last three years. A key factor is 5-foot-9, 160-pound junior running back Javier Montalvo, who has rushed for 600 yards in the last three games. He ran for 203 yards and two touchdowns against Rochelle.
"We had three tailbacks playing and Montalvo started to get more carries beginning with the Thornton game," Ernst said. "He has made a big impact. He is a wrestler and he doesn't like to get tackled. He has emerged as our go-to running back."
Montalvo runs behind McGovern, a 6-foot-7, 297-pound senior, 6-foot-2, 250-pound junior tackle Brennan Mulroe and 6-foot-4, 245-pound senior guard Derrek Gurnea. Quarterback Justin Keuch, a 5-foot-9, 150-pound junior, has passed for 1,100 yards and seven touchdowns.
Ernst said McGovern is "as good an offensive tackle as I've seen. He is fast, quick and intelligent. You see a lot of big kids but he is an athlete." Mulroe is back after missing two weeks with a torn ACL.
The defense features 6-foot-4, 200-pound senior tackle Matt Sorganan, 6-foot, 190-pound senior linebacker McKenna Wychocky, 6-foot-2, 240-pound junior tackle Josh Hilt, 5-foot-9, 180-pound senior linebacker Jake Bohne, 5-foot-7, 150-pound senior cornerback Andy Hensel and Alex and Andrew Gray, a pair of junior safeties who are 6-foot-3, 180-pound identical twins.
Sorganan was on the prep team last year. He saw only five snaps during the entire season. He was only 6-foot-1 as a junior. "But he had a great off-season. Now he is one of the best players on the team. His father played in the NFL. He is a late developer. His best days are in front of him," Ernst said.
The same can be said for Lincoln-Way West.