Football: Hopes are high at Reavis, St. Laurence
By Pat Disabato firstname.lastname@example.org August 8, 2012 10:46PM
Tim Zasada, the new Reavis football coach, talks to players after their first practice. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: September 10, 2012 1:19PM
Tim Zasada barked instructions Wednesday morning during Illinois’ first official day of high school football practice, standing approximately 50 yards away from the game field that once housed one of the Southland’s most dominant programs.
The excitement, passion and steadfast belief in a return to glory for Reavis football echoed in every order.
“No more excuses,” said Zasada, the former T.F. North coach. “Hard work, sacrifice and more hard work. If you don’t want to be here, no problem. I want guys who are up for the challenge. I want to find out who I can bring on the damn bus.”
The bus Zasada is referring to is the one that will take the Rams to their Aug. 24 season opener at Solorio Academy in Chicago.
One player who certainly will be on the bus is quarterback Jose Romero.
When Romero, a junior, lofted a perfect 25-yard pass to receiver Tyler Wetzel in the end zone on the final play of the morning session, Zasada, in a Reavis cap and shirt and gray shorts, ran down field yelling, “Yeah! Yeah!” to congratulate his receiver and pat him on the helmet.
The 38 remaining varsity players, all clad in blue Reavis practice jerseys, didn’t exactly match their coach’s excitement. That would be an impossible task. No one can match Zasada’s exuberance.
However, if the Rams can repeat that type of execution during the season, the roar may be restored sooner than expected at Reavis, which won the Class 6A title in 1982 under Dennis Wierzal after consecutive runner-up finishes in 1980 and ’81.
The Rams’ last playoff appearance came in 2007. Since then, they’re 8-28, including an 0-9 mark last season and 1-8 in 2010. Reavis has made the playoffs just three times since 1989.
“We’ve got to win,” Zasada said. “It’s no ‘nice try’ or ‘nice effort.’ That’s not going to cut it. We don’t have many (players), but the ones we have we expect to be able to play with anyone.”
Many would scoff at such bravado.
But Zasada, taking over for Jim McDonough, was faced with an even more daunting rebuilding task a few years back. In 2001, he took over a T.F. North program that hadn’t qualified for the playoffs or finished above .500 in 17 years.
He guided North to four playoff appearances in the next six seasons, racking up a 34-25 mark in the process.
“There’s a big difference,” Romero said of the climate change in the program. “More discipline, kids are working harder and there are more kids stepping up to be leaders. Coach is motivating all of us. We’re all more confident.”
Reavis isn’t the only high school with a Burbank ZIP code looking to return to prominence behind a new head coach. St. Laurence, which finished 4-5 a year ago, hired Harold Blackmon to succeed longtime coach Jim Grannan.
True, the Vikings’ free-fall has been nowhere near as dramatic as Reavis’. In fact, St. Laurence qualified for the postseason 2007, ’08 and ’09. Prior to that three-year run, the Vikings hadn’t experienced playoff football since 1996.
It was a tough stretch, considering St. Laurence boasts the 1976 Class 5A state championship in its trophy case.
The excitement, while a little more muted, equally was evident Wednesday at St. Laurence. The Vikings’ varsity roster stands at approximately 50, the freshman at 40. Solid numbers for sure.
“We’re ready to go,” said Blackmon, a Leo graduate, dressed in a black St. Laurence shirt and shorts. “The players want to win, they want to be winners. We had a great spring and summer and we’re looking forward to carrying it over into the season.”
Few, if any, local coaches boast the resume of Blackmon, who was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks in 2001 out of Northwestern. He played in the NFL for two seasons before hanging up his cleats. He returned to coach at Leo, then moved to Northwestern as a quality control coach. During his playing career at NU, he won two Big Ten titles, was named team captain as a senior and won the Marcel Price Award as the team’s most dedicated player.
The Vikings will have to be equally dedicated to turn around their fortunes, with the likes of Mount Carmel and Providence on this season’s schedule. But senior offensive lineman Mark Milavickas is confident St. Laurence will respond with a memorable season.
“There’s a lot more discipline and a change of attitude,” said Milavickas, a Hickory Hills resident. “Guys are excited. We don’t want this season to be a building block. We want to leave our own mark. I see us as a potential playoff team.”
Blackmon is supremely confident the Vikings can succeed and have the means to compete with Mount Carmel, St. Rita, Brother Rice and Marist for the area’s top prospects.
“I remind our players this program has won before,” said Blackmon, whose team opens its season Aug. 24 at home against his alma mater, Leo. “We show the kids the conference championships and the state championship. It’s been done before and it can be done again.”