JOLIET – In an area that features a glut of quality high school football teams year after year, Lincoln-Way West needed little time to establish that it belongs.
The Warriors were 2-7 in 2009, their first year of existence. Since then, they have a 33-12 overall record and have qualified for the playoffs the past four seasons.
They finished 8-3 in 2010 and 7-3 in 2011 under Mark Vander Kooi. Dave Ernst took over when Vander Kooi became athletic director at Lincoln-Way East. Ernst’s first two Warriors teams both were quarterfinalists, finishing 8-4 in 2012 and 10-2 last season.
The quarterfinal losses in Class 5A have been gut-wrenching. West lost to Joliet Catholic by a matter of inches, 21-20, in 2012 and last season had a tough second half on a muddy track and lost at Sycamore, 21-14. Sycamore also beat the Warriors, 34-21, in the 2013 season opener.
West lost a majority of its starters to graduation, so continuing on the winning path this season will be a challenge. But if inexperienced players come through, the talent is there to make it interesting.
“We lost a lot, but we’re not poor,” Ernst said during his team’s appearance last week at the University of St. Francis 7-on-7 Passing Jamboree at Memorial Stadium.
The Warriors’ strength is their offensive line. Junior Justin Witt, senior Jake Zola, senior Simon Egner, junior Bryan Brokop and senior Jake Heckler will line up from left tackle to right tackle. They average 6-foot-41/2 and more than 260 pounds.
“We have some of the best linemen we’ve had,” Ernst said.
Although a junior, Brokop already has offers from Nebraska, Illinois, Kentucky, Syracuse and North Carolina State, among others.
The O-line will block for a pair of juniors who will attempt to fill the shoes of all-stater Javier Montalvo. One is Javier’s brother, Gabe Montalvo, and the other is Adam Knerr.
“Both of those guys could play some defense, too,” Ernst said. “I feel real good about our two tailbacks.”
The quarterback job will fall to a sophomore, either Connor Lowman, Dino Burelli or both.
“The thing about them is they are not like regular sophomores,” Ernst said. “They run and throw well. We may play both of them.”
Joe Shirley, Sam Bellamy and Kurtis Flonder, all seniors, provide a good array of receivers, along with junior tight end Ben Zordani.
New faces will be abound as well on the defensive side.
For example, “The last two years, I could pencil in the two Grays at safety,” Ernst said of twins Alex and Andrew. “Now, we’re not sure who will play there.”
The returning defensive regulars are tackle Nick Trollian, sophomore linebacker Trey Tellez and cornerback Pete King. Cody Marconi, the regular fullback last season, is 6-2, 240 and may play the defensive tackle opposite Trollian.
“Trollian is our three-technique guy,” Ernst said. “He’s a leader of our defense. Tellez is really a good player and is only a sophomore, and King is returning. Other than that, every defensive position is up for grabs.”
Ernst said he and his coaching staff are working with a young team. “We have a small senior class in terms of numbers, but they’re good seniors,” he said.
There are some ifs, perhaps more than in the previous couple of summers. But the Warriors have grown accustomed to winning, and as Ernst said, “We’re not poor.”