Zvonar builds a powerhouse at Lincoln-Way East

Zvonar builds a powerhouse at Lincoln-Way East
October 23, 2012, 2:58 pm
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Start-up schools usually struggle out of the gate. It takes at least a year or two or more to organize community support and establish relationships, a culture, an attitude, a tradition. Even after all of that, there is no guarantee that the football program will come together.

South Elgin, in its seventh year, started 0-9, 3-6, 3-6. Grayslake North, also in its seventh year, started 0-9, 1-8, 0-9. Plainfield South, which opened in 2002, started 0-9, 0-9, 2-7. Plainfield East started 1-8, 1-8, 3-6. Metea Valley, in its third year, started 1-8, 4-5.

Providence, which opened in 1968, started 1-6, 0-7, 1-8, 3-4 and 1-6-1. The Celtics didn't field a winning team for the first seven years. But coach Matt Senffner produced nine state champions from 1987 to 2004.

Prairie Ridge, which opened in 1997, started 1-8 but recovered quickly with 5-4 and 6-4 seasons and won a state championship last year. Neuqua Valley, which opened in 1998, started 0-9, 4-5, 3-6 and 1-8 but has experienced only two losing seasons in the last 10 years.

Richards opened in 1965 and didn't field a winning team for the first seven years, starting 0-7, 0-9, 2-6, 2-6 and 0-9. But coach Gary Korhonen arrived and won 306 games, two state titles and qualified for the state playoff for 23 years in a row.

Vernon Hills didn't take long to establish a winning tradition under coach Tony Monken. After starting 2-7 in 2000, the team qualified for the state playoff in each of the next three years and has sustained only one losing season in the last 11 years.

A rarity is Woodstock North, which opened 0-9 and 2-7. But coach Jeff Schroeder's third team went 7-3 and qualified for the state playoff. And this year's squad also finished the regular season with a 7-2 mark.

But nobody has been more successful than Lincoln-Way East's Rob Zvonar.

Since he was hired at the new Frankfort school in 2000, he has fashioned a start-up record that would be the envy of Google and Apple...no losing teams in his first 12 years, an up-to-date record of 111-26, a winning percentage of .810, one state championship, 81-11 in the last eight years, 12 state qualifiers in a row.

And 2012 could be best of all. Led by Northern Illinois-bound quarterback Tom Fuessel, linebackers Adam O'Grady and Kyle Langenderfer and tackle Nick Allegretti, the Griffins are 9-0 after last Friday's 42-6 rout of Joliet West.

The Griffins are averaging 35.3 points per game and have allowed only 79 total. Since a 20-14 victory over three-time defending state champion Montini in Week 2, no opponent has gotten within 15 points. They have allowed only 13 points in their last three games.

How did Zvonar do it?

He had good teachers. At Downstate Monticello, he was a 5-foot-10, 210-pound Little All-State linebacker on Hud Venerable's 11-1 state quarterfinalist in 1988. Ironically, Venerable currently is athletic director at Lincoln-Way Central.

Zvonar was going to walk on at Southern Illinois but he understood he was built for Division III so he opted to enroll at Illinois Wesleyan. After graduating in 1994, he wanted to stay for another year to gain experience at coaching college football. But basketball coach Dennis Bridges helped him to land a job at Lincoln-Way Central, where he assisted head coach Rob Glielmi for six years.

When Lincoln-Way East opened in 2000, district superintendent Larry Wylie decided to stay in house to name the school's first football coach.

Zvonar got the job. He started with freshmen and sophomores in 2000, then fielded an all-junior varsity squad in 2001. The program was off and running.

"What we have achieved stemmed from the success that Glielmi and Lincoln-Way Central had," Zvonar said. "We didn't have to start up a new culture. We didn't have to change the culture. We already had a great winning attitude. The system wasn't broken so we didn't try to fix it. We piggy-backed on what Lincoln-Way Central had done."

Zvonar's slogan for his new program was: "New tradition but same excellence."

"They talk about five-tool baseball players," he said. "Well, we had a community that was ready, good youth programs, an administration that was excited and supportive, great players and parents and great boosters.

"The kids didn't want to make excuses or alibi. They took us through the first year with underclassmen. We made the state playoff with juniors at 6-3 in our first year. When Lincoln-Way Central split, they kept Manhattan and New Lenox and we got Mokena and Frankfort and Frankfort Square."

From day one, Zvonar had a first-rate staff. Joel Pallissard, who played for Bishop McNamara coach Rich Zinanni in the 1980s, became offensive coordinator. Jack Eddy has coached the offensive line. Ron Tomczak, the late Thornton Fractional North coach, and his son Steve were on the staff at one time.

Zvonar traces the success of his program to "a combination of being demanding, toughness and discipline and investing time into the kids, making them know we care about them as a coach and mentor. Rules without a relationship will equal rebellion but rules with a relationship will equal results. That's our credo."

Is he surprised by all of the success, no losing seasons in 12 years and never failing to qualify for the state playoff?

"Yes. If I'm being honest, we invested a tremendous amount of time and hard work. We were hopeful but until it actually happened we wouldn't have said it was going to happen so quickly."

When Lincoln-Way Central lost to Joliet Catholic in the 1999 quarterfinals, at a time when the transition to Lincoln-Way East was being made, Zvonar said to Glielmi: "The day we are disappointed at getting beat in the quarterfinals will be a great day at East."

"I didn't know we'd take off like that. I was too arrogant or stupid to know it wouldn't happen," Zvonar said.

But he cites two dates that forever will be remembered as turning points in the rapid development of the program--2001 when Lincoln-Way East qualified for the state playoff with an all-junior squad and 2004, when the team was 1-4 and on the verge of being eliminated from playoff contention.

"In Week 6, we pulled out a victory over Lincoln-Way Central that brought us to 2-4. We finished 5-4 and got into the playoff. It was the first game that Anthony Kropp started at quarterback. He came off the bench, led us to seven victories in a row and went to the semifinals. Then he quarterbacked the 14-0 state championship team in 2005."

Another pleasant memory is offensive guard Adam Gettis, who went on to be an All-Big Ten selection at Iowa and currently plays with the Washington Redskins in the NFL.

"We were 5-3 in 2001 going into Week 9 with Sandburg," Zvonar said. "We could have been content to be 5-4. But we won the game to finish at 6-3. We didn't go in the back door."

Zvonar doesn't do it with Division I players. He has 15 players from last year's team playing in college this season, the most in program history, but most of them are at small colleges. He describes Gettis as a "once-in-a-decade or once-in-a-lifetime" player.

He recalls a sage comment that the late Wheaton North coach Jim Rexilius once told him: "You have something going when the kids you have want to do better than the kids who came before."

"We instill an attitude of toughness and discipline. That's my philosophy," Zvonar summed up. "If you talk to guys who played for us earlier, there is a softening now. The average kid we get will work as hard as you demand.

"We don't get blue-chip eighth graders but kids who are excited about football. When they walk in the door as freshmen, we take every opportunity to develop them. They love the game. They have a passion for it. They are willing to work hard. They don't want to let down the kids who played the
year before."

Lincoln-Way East, a No. 1 seed in Class 7A, will host Plainfield Central in the opening round of the state playoff.