FRANKFORT – A mind-numbing 459 days have passed since the Lincoln-Way East football team claimed the Class 8A state championship at Northern Illinois University.
On Wednesday, the arduous length of time since the Griffins hoisted the hardware until teams were allowed to participate in full-on official team practices finally came to an end. Nearly 500 11-man teams around the state were accorded the opportunity to resume team practices Wednesday, with most of them set to begin game play on the weekend of March 19 and 20.
“After 16 months of an offseason, not knowing for sure what was going to happen, trying to keep these guys going, keeping ourselves going,” Lincoln-Way East coach Rob Zvonar said. “These kids had to face an unbelievable amount of adversity. They will never forget it for the rest of their lives, good or bad.
“But to be here with this group, we had zero seniors opt out, 48 of them; they are here together, and they are here to finish what they started.”
The season will be six weeks in length. Some schools opted to play less than six as conferences, and some others had difficulty getting a full calendar of games. There will be no postseason.
As such, the Griffins won’t be able to defend their hard-earned state title of 2019. But for Wednesday at least, that wasn’t the point of emphasis.
“We couldn’t be more excited about these six games. We’re going to go crazy prepping for it,” Zvonar said. “It is going to go too fast. We are going to be disappointed when it is over, so we are going to enjoy each single day. It started today with beautiful weather, something that has never happened in Illinois: spring football.”
Lincoln-Way East’s senior running back Jamal Johnson was joyful that he finally had the chance to hit the field with his teammates. The Bowling Green recruit looks to be a key cog in the Griffins’ offense.
“It feels great,” Johnson said. “Seeing all the guys all out here. We’ve been watching people in other states play, so to finally be back out here, it feels good. There have been ups and downs about it, and you just have to think positive about the situation.”
For other Griffins, such as inside linebacker Payton Orth, the six-game season provides opportunity. Recruiting for the next level has become something of a quagmire for uncommitted athletes in this senior class, but the six-week season could provide a window of opportunity for Orth to showcase his skills for schools that may not have seen enough from him to offer a scholarship.
“It feels great to be out here again,” Orth said. “I’ve struggled to get some tape out there. I’m going to try to work as hard as I can for this upcoming season and hopefully get some good tape. Hopefully, I’ll get a good offer to somewhere I’m happy and proud to go to.”
Zvonar readily admits that he would have liked to have the chance to defend the 2019 title, but he understands the reality of the situation.
“That’s something we’ve got to quit dwelling on,” Zvonar said. “We really wished we could have played in the fall to defend the championship and see if we could have done it. I’m not saying we would of, but I think we would have been in the mix again. But we have 48 seniors here that have lost one time in their high school careers. We think we would have been in the conversation. Lot of great teams out there. Doesn’t mean we would have done it. But we wish would have had the chance to do that.
“But that’s not where we’re at, so we are going to move forward with a great group of seniors. We have a choice. We can look back and continue to stay upset about the circumstances, which privately we may be, but what we really want to do is embrace this day and embrace these kids for the next eight weeks and let them leave high school with something real positive to build on.”