For Fire, 2012 a "year for no excuses"


For Fire, 2012 a "year for no excuses"

The Fire had never missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons at this time a year ago. But with a team featuring plenty of new faces and an early-season coaching change, the Men in Red missed the playoffs for the second straight year, falling just short of the postseason despite a torrid finish.

No player or coach would've used that lack of familiarity as an excuse for falling short of their goals. But it does serve as a fair explanation, especially in light of their 7-2-1 record over the final 10 games of the season. Under Frank Klopas, the team came together but ultimately was done in by the poor start that saw the team notch just two victories through mid-August.

If that momentum from last year's playoff push carries over, though, that playoff drought will be history.

"It's a lot more comfortable for the guys as opposed to last year," winger Patrick Nyarko said. "It helped because we didn't have to start from scratch, so it made it a lot easier."

Defender Cory Gibbs took it a step further.

"This is the year for no excuses," he said. "This is what we've asked for, the cohesiveness. We've kept everybody with the addition of two or three solid players. If we don't get it done this year, there's no reason for it, no excuses.

"We have all the elements in place, we just have to put it together."

Good vibrations are running rampant around Fire training heading into the club's home opener against Philadelphia on Saturday, which kicks off at 7:30 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet. Chicago came away from a rabid environment in Montreal last weekend with a point, drawing the Impact in the franchise's first-ever home match.

The Fire earned a draw thanks to an equalizing goal by Dominic Oduro, which was brilliantly set up by midfielder Sebastian Grazzini. The score was indicative of how far the Fire have come in the last year -- Oduro was acquired from Houston in an early-season trade last year while Grazzini joined the club in July. Months later, the pair's rapport paid off in the form of a key goal.

"That's a typical example of what happens when you play over time," said Gibbs. "That probably wouldn't have happened with them being together for just this season."

Of course, whatever success may be ahead for the Fire won't come just because the roster is more familiar with each other. Klopas would bristle at that suggestion.

"Everyone's gotta pay the price, the price has to be paid every frickin' day we come here to training," Klopas said emphatically. "If not, then we're not going to get better."

It's early in the season, so no matter where you go, there's going to be positivity. There's going to be high expectations. There's going to be an emphasis on hard work. But Klopas sees an emphasis on all that as his team working on something they can control.

"The ball hits the post, goes in, goes out, I mean, the theme can be no excuses but also for us, it can be to control the controllables," explained Klopas. "That's what we put into work every day, our attitude, our focus, our discipline. Those are the things that really matter, sticking together as a team. Because those we can control. All the other things, you know, it's a game."

This all may seem very rah-rah, but again, it's early. And there's a genuine belief among the Fire they can carry the momentum of 2011 into 2012 and reach the postseason for the first time since 2009.

"With the team we've built and knowing how it felt to win at the end of the year, we know what it takes," Nyarko said. "Guys are confident and absolutely positive we'll make the playoffs."

Griffins hope to avoid 'sick feeling' going forward after blowout loss to Bradley

Griffins hope to avoid 'sick feeling' going forward after blowout loss to Bradley

Not all losses are created equal.

When Lincoln-Way East suffered a 35-30 defeat in Week 3 to Homewood-Flossmoor, the Griffins took positives away from the loss. They had held a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, battled back from adversity in the second half and had a chance to win the game in the final minute. Even that loss in retrospect appeared acceptable – if there ever was an acceptable loss – as the Vikings are currently 8-0 and in their other seven wins have outscored their opponents by an average of 38 points.

By Week 3 the Griffins were still acclimating to the unique situation of playing at game speed with a host of Lincoln-Way North students who had transferred in the offseason. They had a defense made up almost entirely of first-year starters, and the offense was still rotating quarterbacks Jake Arthur and Max Shafer to figure out how to maximize their talent. By many standards the Griffins went toe-to-toe for 48 minutes with a team also considered to be a favorite for a state title.

The same couldn’t be said for the Griffins’ effort last Friday night in Bradley.

An esteemed program with a 2005 state title and 16 consecutive playoff appearances to their resume, it isn’t often the Griffins are embarrassed on Friday night. But those were the words head coach Rob Zvonar used in his postgame speech to the team following their 38-21 loss to the undefeated Boilermakers.

“We chose to play the game,” Zvonar began. “Which means you play it to the greatest of your ability and you honor each other, God, everybody by your play. And we didn’t do that tonight.”

There were plenty of reasons the Griffins suffered their second loss of the season. That is came in such blowout fashion was the bigger surprise. The Boilermakers found the end zone on their first two possessions, rallying behind a raucous home crowd hoping to see their team go 8-0 for the first time in school history.

The Griffins defense, which had allowed 27 points the previous three weeks combined, were on their heels as the Boilermakers used misdirection and a few trick plays to set up the short touchdown runs.

The Griffins offense moved down the field on their fourth possession, moving inside the Boilermakers red zone looking to get on the board. But Iowa commit Camron Harrell stepped in front of a Griffins screen pass on 4th down and returned it 89 yards for a score. On the final play of the first quarter, with the Griffins moving again, Damien Williams read a route and picked off Jake Arthur, returning it 53 yards for a score to give the Boilermakers a shocking 28-0 lead after 12 minutes.

After a spirited halftime speech from Zvonar, the Griffins came out firing in the second half, scoring on a touchdown run from Nigel Muhammad and a Jeremy Nelson 27-yard reception from Arthur. But the Boilermakers weathered the storm each time Lincoln-Way East attempted a comeback. The Griffins only got as close as 14 points late in the fourth quarter.

“I think we came into this game not ready,” said Muhammad, who finished with 164 yards on 24 carries. “But we’re all a team and we all accept this loss together.”

Added senior Jack Carroll, who finished with a team-high nine tackles: “We have this sick feeling in our stomach right now but the best thing is (next) Friday we can come back and get it out of our stomach. If we lose again in the playoffs then we’ll have that sick feeling in our stomach for the rest of our lives.”

That’s now the reality for the Griffins, and a silver lining if there ever could be one for such a blowout loss. With the playoffs a mere week away – the Griffins defeated Lockport on Friday to finish the regular season 7-2 – the feeling each of them felt getting on the bus back to Frankfort will linger with them and act as a reminder of how quickly things can slip away.

“We’re trying to put this behind us,” said Max Shafer. “We’re going to try to get hot and make a run in the playoffs.”

In a loaded 8A class, the Griffins’ two regular-season losses have already knocked them down in the seeding process. While any loss before Week 9 means little in the long run – the Griffins locked up a playoff berth weeks ago – it also means a more difficult road to Champaign. But that’s the reality for Zvonar’s group, and whether it’s a defense playing faster or an offense avoiding costly mistakes, the Griffins are running out of time to right the ship.

But Zvonar believes such a loss as the team suffered last Friday night can act as the catalyst to doing just that. The Griffins have established themselves as one of the state’s premier programs, and that means not riding the highs too high, and not breaking apart when the lows come. Last Friday night was as low as Zvonar had seen any of his 16 teams, but the silver lining occurred in that his squad now knows what it has to do to avoid it when it’s win or go home.

“What we also think is that the program is built on a solid foundation, so when you take a little hit like that you battle back and you go back to what you believe in and what you know can be successful. And that’s fundamentals and keeping things simple, and the kids have bounced back and they’re not acceptable to them what occurred to them, so very proud of their effort and the way they’re working.

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