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.