FRANKFORT – It says something about how good a football program is that a 9-3 record and a berth in the Class 8A quarterfinals is considered a down year.
But, such is the case with Lincoln-Way East.
Coach Rob Zvonar’s Griffins have become such a fixture in the later rounds of the playoffs and with double-digit win totals that 9-3 looks like an aberration. It was the first time since 2016 that Lincoln-Way East had as many as three losses in a season.
With 16 starters returning after last season’s 3-0 Class 8A quarterfinal loss to Loyola Academy, the Griffins hope to right the ship this season and continue their incredible streak of reaching the playoffs every year of the school’s existence, including winning three state championships.
Heading the charge will be linebacker Jake Scianna. Not only is Scianna in his third year as a starter, he also saw time on the kickoff and kickoff return teams as a freshman in the 2019 state championship game. He is the last of three brothers that have won state titles for the Griffins. Older brothers Ryan and Danny were on the 2017 state title team.
“I wasn’t old enough to play with them, but they really taught me a lot,” Scianna said. “Also, my dad [Randy] was an All-American at Homewood-Flossmoor and played at Notre Dame. Football is in my blood.
“There’s a bit of a chip on our shoulder this year, for sure. Going 9-3 isn’t bad. A lot of schools would kill for that record. But for our standards, it wasn’t very good. There’s a long tradition here at Lincoln-Way East, and we hope to be a part of that. The biggest thing for us is to win a state title. I remember telling the guys on last year’s team that we will go win one for them this year, and that’s what we are going for. Last year’s finish just made us more hungry this year.”
East coach Rob Zvonar, the only head coach the Griffins have had since they started playing in 2000, says he and the team have a nickname for Scianna. The Eraser.
“He is the kind of player that erases other guys’ mistakes,” Zvonar said. “If a defensive lineman misses a tackle or an assignment, Jake is right there to make the tackle anyway. Having him in the middle is a great place to start for our defense.”
Besides Scianna, juniors Connor Durkin and Nick Peterson return as inside linebackers for the Griffins, while senior Charles Nevinger and junior Gavin LeDere will be the outside linebackers. On the defensive line will be senior Hank Ravetto, junior Joe Fushi, sophomore Caden O’Rourke, junior David Wuske and junior Josiah Manumaleuna. The secondary will include senior returning all-stater D.J. Ritter and senior Zac Welker at safety, with senior Jordan Braithwaite and juniors Jashawn Echols and J.T. Poynton at cornerback.
“We will play Lincoln-Way East defense,” Zvonar said. “We aren’t real big, but we are pretty fast. We will be relentless to the ball and play with tremendous effort.”
Zvonar feels that the strength of the offense will be the running game. The Griffins return two three-year starters – seniors Brad Abbot and Will Heitner – along with juniors Josh Janowski and Mike Lombardo. Seniors Carter Russell, Colin Redmond and Joe Torelli also are vying for playing time.
The backfield will feature a 1-2 punch of seniors James Kwiecinski and Pete Olaleye, while the quarterback battle is between senior Chase Arthur and junior Braden Tischer. Seniors Jayden Cool and Jimmy Curtin return as receivers, with senior Sam Dye and juniors Cade Serauskis and Ryan Usher also pushing for playing time.
“A lot of times, when a team has two running backs, it’s a thunder-and-lightning situation,” Zvonar said. “With James and Pete, they are both a little bit of both.”
What’s more, neither running back seems to care who carries the ball.
“As long as we move the ball, we don’t care who gets it,” Kwiecinski said. “We switch to slot receiver when we aren’t in the backfield, so we still stay on the field.”
“I would say I am more of a bowling-ball type,” Olaleye said. “James has a little more speed. We do have a little chip on our shoulder from last year. There’s a few state championships here, and we want to get one of our own.”
Zvonar hopes that the Griffins can use the experience from last season to their advantage.
“We were a little younger group last year,” he said. “We typically have 16-18 seniors starting, but last year we were much younger. Still, I was very proud of what they did. We were down 3-0 to [Loyola coach] John Holocek’s crew and had the ball at the end with a chance to win. We don’t believe in moral victories here, but I was very proud of these guys.
“After last season, these guys won’t get caught up in a situation. You can simulate a lot of things in practice, but you can’t simulate Friday nights or Saturday afternoon playoff games. They have been through those now. We will be battle-tested, that’s for sure. Not only from last year, but we start with a road game against a good Crete-Monee team and then play a very good Batavia team at home before starting our conference schedule that has [defending Class 8A champion] Lockport, Bolingbrook, Homewood-Flossmoor and a much-improved Sandburg program. We hope our kids can use the experience from last year and have a good year this year.”