Zunkel put his Mercer County team on the right track

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Zunkel put his Mercer County team on the right track

Everybody talks about team chemistry. Yes, talent is important. But even the most talented team can fumble the ball if it lacks team chemistry, if egos are perceived to be more important than teammates.

Ask Nat Zunkel.

The fourth-year coach at Mercer County in Aledo expected to field a strong and talented team this season. The Golden Eagles were 11-1 last year, losing to Stark County in the state quarterfinals, and returned 17 starters this season. So Zunkel isn't surprised to be 13-0 going into Friday's Class 2A championship game against Belleville Althoff.

"I like what we do. We have bunch of kids who work hard. It's a good feeling to be in charge of a group of great athletes," he said. "We anticipated that we would have a great team, that they could be something special. They have come together in the last few weeks and have played well in the playoffs."

But it hasn't always been that way. "These kids have played together for several years. Their egos have been parked on the side. But we had to deal with it earlier in the year," Zunkel said.

"I was having some parents and kids who were annoyed on the sideline. I could see it. We were ahead by a lot in some games and some kids didn't get many carries and got snotty about it. 'Hey, I need more carries. Hey, I need more playing time.' I sensed trouble and I wanted to end it right away."

At a film session, Zunkel stepped up and said: "If anyone thinks he should be more carries or catches or playing time, stand up in front of your teammates and say so."

"That was the end of it," he said. "I dealt with it and we haven't had to worry about it since then."

Mercer County has gone about its business in surgical fashion. The Golden Eagles have scored 540 points while allowing 93. No opponent has come within 11 points. They ousted Clifton Central 26-7 in last Saturday's semifinals as quarterback Taylor Matlick completed 14 of 23 passes for 211 yards and Zach Nelson scored two touchdowns.

Mercer County (enrollment: 384) is a consolidation of several small towns that merged with Aledo in 2009. They include Joy, Seaton, New Boston, Keithsburg, Burgess, Mannon, Eliza and Millersburg, all in Mercer County.

Zunkel, a 1955 graduate of York in Elmhurst, played football under Gary Grouwinkel. He competed in football and track at Illinois Wesleyan, then coached at Kankakee, Homewood-Flossmoor and Mattoon before becoming head coach at Mercer County in 2009.

"I knew of Aledo. I couldn't find it on a map but I followed high school sports when I was at York and I knew they had a great football program," said Zunkel, who is 41-6 in four years.

Aledo had one of the most successful programs in the state under Cullen Welter, who was 113-22 in 11 years. He won state titles in 1998, 2001 and 2002 and was second in 2005 and 2006.

Zunkel is following in his footsteps. He is running what he calls a "pro-style spread," akin to what the New England Patriots do with four or five receivers and one or two tight ends and one or three or no running backs.

Matlick, a 6-foot-5, 200-pound senior, is the triggerman. He has passed for 1.900 yards and rushed for 220. Nelson, a 5-foot-8, 180-pound senior, has rushed for 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns. Payton Holmes, a 5-foot-11, 165-pound senior wide receiver, has accounted for 600 yards via pass receiving and averages 15 yards per catch. The offensive line is anchored by 6-foot-1, 225-pound senior tackle Matt Zimmerman.

"Matlick is our leader. He gets us organized. He is tough. He drives us. He is a special kid," Zunkel said.

The defense, which could be 3-4 or 4-3 or 5-2, features 5-foot-8, 200-pound senior linebacker Caleb King, 5-foot-11, 170-pound junior linebacker Chris Neeld and 5-foot-8, 150-pound senior cornerback Bryce Skiles, who hasn't given up a touchdown pass in two years.

What is the scouting report on Belleville Althoff? "They are good and fast and big. The key is we have got to do what we have done all year--put points on the board and hold them to very few. We have to score and stop them. We haven't had trouble doing that most of the year," Zunkel said.

He cites one statistic above all others that he believes is the difference between victory and defeat, between being a state champion or a runner-up.

"We are plus 35 in the turnover ratio this year. We have 17 interceptions," he said. "That shows how efficient we are on defense. Our kids fly to the ball and make plays."

He hopes they will do more of the same on Friday.

Fire fail to hold another lead at home, but reason why was different

Fire fail to hold another lead at home, but reason why was different

Holding onto leads at home has not been a strong suit for the Fire this season.

Wednesday’s 2-2 draw against the LA Galaxy was the fifth time this season the Fire have been unable to get a win at home in a match they led. In four of those, including Wednesday, the Fire had leads in the second half.

In the previous cases, the Fire dropped deep defensively and tried to simply hold onto the lead or hope David Accam could score on a one-man counter.

“I think once we’re up in the result I think we have to make sure that we kill the game off because there’s been too many times where it’s that 1-0 or that 2-1 and we’re kind of holding there and the next thing you know they’re tying the game at the end of the game,” midfielder Arturo Alvarez said. “We got to keep pushing for that third goal to make sure that we kill things off.”

The game against LA was different. The Fire had multiple quality chances to score a third goal and take a two-goal lead. One opportunity featuring Accam, Luis Solignac and an open net seemed like a sure goal as it was developing.

However, the Fire didn’t find that two-goal lead and LA managed to come back.

“I think we created a lot of chances,” Alvarez said. “We went up 2-1 and unfortunately that third goal didn’t want to go in at the right time and then LA got that bounce.”

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Even though the result didn’t show it, the Fire may have actually turned a corner in terms of how to play with a lead. In the win at Montreal on Saturday, the Fire scored that extra goal to take a two-goal lead, something the team hadn’t done all season in an MLS game.

Against the Galaxy, the Fire actually had more possession in the second half (56 percent) than the first half (46 percent). LA’s only shot on goal in the second half was the tying goal while the Fire put three shots on target in the second 45 minutes.

The Fire did fail to close out another match at home that they had a lead in, but the way it happened was different and maybe that’s a positive sign going forward.

“I think it’s starts from the offense,” Accam said. “If we could have scored then we could have killed the game. The defense did really well. We just need to keep finishing chances and then opponents won’t have the chance to attack us.

“I think we played one of the best games we played this season, but we need to take our chances and today I would say we are disappointed that we dropped two points at home. For me also we created so many chances that on another day we could have taken it. It’s kind of a mixed feeling for me.”

Hunter Jr., McGlinchey, Onwualu, Rochell ready to lead Notre Dame as captains

Hunter Jr., McGlinchey, Onwualu, Rochell ready to lead Notre Dame as captains

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — As Notre Dame breaks up the scar tissue from a weekend that saw six players be arrested, it named four players to an official leadership role.

Coach Brian Kelly announced four captains following practice on Wednesday: Redshirt junior wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr., redshirt junior offensive lineman Mike McGlinchey, linebacker James Onwualu and defensive end Isaac Rochell. 

“I can't think of a higher honor that I've received in my life,” Rochell said. 

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Those players, plus a group of other upperclassmen that includes quarterbacks DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire, will be counted on to lead the Irish through the fall. Those players all saw the importance of leadership last year, when Notre Dame — complete with an avalanche of leaders headlined by five team captains — was able to navigate an unprecedented string of injuries to a 10-win season and berth in the Fiesta Bowl. 

Each of these guys learned from captains and/or leaders at their position in 2015. For Hunter, that was Chris Brown. McGlinchey learned from the Martins, Nick and Zack, who combined to spend four years as Irish captains. 

“We’re going to be okay without the Martins,” McGlinchey smiled, “though it does stink without them.”

On defense, Rochell picked up plenty from Sheldon Day, a two-time captain himself who was one of the more vocal leaders on the Irish last fall. And Onwualu started alongside Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt for two consecutive years, with both of those players earning captaincies in 2015.

Onwualu is also the answer to a good trivia question, given he has the most starts at wide receiver (four) of any current Irish player. 

“I’ve been trying to convince (Kelly) to let me go back,” Onwualu quipped. “I want a couple more catches.” 

Notre Dame probably doesn’t have the leadership depth it did in 2015 or 2012, when rosters stocked with a good mix of vocal and lead-by-example players powered the two best seasons in the Kelly era. But all these captains are in Year 4 in the program and said they’re excited for the challenge ahead of them. 

“I’m definitely honored and blessed to be in this position,” Hunter said. 

Here’s what Kelly had to say about each player:

On Rochell: “He’s really taken over that room from Sheldon Day. Been the leader, there’s a lot of young players in that room, he’s been a great mentor. I love the way he handles himself on a day-to-day basis. Really loves Notre Dame, understands Notre Dame and is a great, great ambassador for our football program.”

On Onwualu: “Here’s a guy that has made himself into a great player for us. Started at the wide receiver position, is well-respected by all of his peers, one of our hardest workers and now has put himself in the position to lead our football team.”

On Hunter: “A guy that walks the walk and talks the talk and backs it up both on and off the field and will be a great mentor to a lot of young receivers.”

On McGlinchey: “A guy that is not afraid to speak up, speak his mind. He’s done a great job of really growing into his leadership role.” 

Notre Dame notes: No QB starter yet, McGovern wins right guard battle

Notre Dame notes: No QB starter yet, McGovern wins right guard battle

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Brian Kelly doesn’t have an answer to the question that’s been on everyone’s minds, at least until it was momentarily shoved out of the spotlight by the six Irish players arrested last weekend

Kelly said Wednesday he hasn’t decided who will start at quarterback against Texas between Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer, though what matters more is how the seventh-year Notre Dame coach uses each player at Darrell K. Royal Stadium Sept. 4. 

It’s been eight days since Kelly informed Kizer and Zaire they both would play against Texas, and while there was initial frustration on the part of each quarterback, Kelly said he’s seen both players warm up to the idea of splitting time in Austin. 

“Since that decision, they really have embraced knowing that both of them will play and they both have to be ready,” Kelly said. “I think what I’ve seen more than anything else is a sharpness in their practice and in particular in their preparation. They know they’re both going to play. They’ve been really sharp.”

[MORE: Notre Dame announces four captains for 2016 season]

More notes from Notre Dame’s last media availability before game week:

— Kelly said both Kizer and Zaire were under consideration to be named captains. “I’m certain that they would have made very good captains,” Kelly said. But Kelly hasn’t named a quarterback a captain while at Notre Dame, though he’s only had one good candidate (Tommy Rees in 2013) before Kizer and Zaire. Wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr., left tackle Mike McGlinchey, defensive end Isaac Rochell and linebacker James Onwualu were all named captains on Wednesday. 

— Redshirt junior Colin McGovern will start over redshirt freshman Tristen Hoge at right guard against Texas, Kelly said. McGlinchey offered an assessment of McGovern, who will make his first career start in Austin: “Colin came into camp ready to play and he was on his assignments, he was kicking some ass, and that’s all it’s about for offensive linemen. He was a sound football player this camp. And it’s really exciting to see Colin step up and get ready to play. He’s very capable of doing the job, a very talented kid, ready to work and he’s got a good head on his shoulders. He’s going to do great things for us this year.”

— Redshirt sophomore defensive end Jay Hayes (ankle) practiced on Wednesday and should be ready to play against Texas provided he’s 100 percent healthy by the weekend, Kelly said. 

— Sophomore running back Josh Adams is back at practice after missing a good chunk of August with a hamstring injury. Running backs were hit in practice on Wednesday and Kelly was pleased with what he saw: “This was the first day where he looked like Josh Adams.” 

— Redshirt freshman receiver Chris Finke, who was elevated from walk-on status and earned a scholarship on Monday, is solidly the No. 2 option behind sophomore C.J. Sanders at slot receiver. Finke held off redshirt sophomore Corey Holmes for backup duties (though Holmes can be moved around to other receiver positions), as the 5-foot-9, 180 pound Kettering, Ohio native “won us over with his consistent play,” Kelly said.