McHENRY – A year ago, Nat Zunkel was the new guy in town.
Zunkel took over a McHenry football program that hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2007 and inherited a team full of players who didn’t know what the coach moving from Aledo in Mercer County was all about.
“They had to learn one name, I had to learn 120,” Zunkel said. “Everything is better in Year Two, smoother.”
Zunkel and his staff made huge progress with their first Warriors team, which finished 6-4 and made the IHSA playoffs for the first time in nine years, losing a Class 7A first-round game to Batavia.
With Zunkel’s second summer camp at McHenry well underway, the Warriors now know what the expectations are.
“At least half the coaching staff was brand-new (last year),” senior lineman Luke Begrowicz said. “We spent a lot of time getting to know them, but now we’re kind of settled in, and we know who they are and what they’re like.”
In the words of quarterback Patrick Breisch, the worst part of summer camp is “hearing your alarm go off” at 5:30 a.m. Even with early starts, Zunkel is keeping things high-energy.
And for the Warriors, there’s no looking backward.
“The kids want to do some things this year that we didn’t do last year,” Zunkel said. “We want to win a certain number of games, we want to be successful in the playoffs. Last year’s group, they have a big signature on this program, but this year’s got to make their own.”
Making the playoffs was no small milestone for a program that had been a mainstay in the postseason, making 20 consecutive appearances from 1988 through 2007.
As the 2017 season nears, McHenry has its sights set even higher. The program has not won a playoff game since 2003, which also is the last season it won more than six games.
This time of year, however, it’s about baby steps.
“It was definitely a confidence boost to be the first ones back (in the playoffs) in a while,” Breisch said. “This year we’ve got a lot of work to do. We’re not expecting anything. That’s where we want to go, but we’ve still got to work hard to get there.”
Breisch, a senior, was the backup quarterback a year ago. The Warriors will have to replace graduated quarterback Colton Klein, and Breisch figures to be in the mix for the spot.
Klein won’t be the only senior missed. Six Warriors made the Northwest Herald All-Area team in 2016 on either the First-Team, Second-Team or as an Honorable Mention. Of those six, only one returns (wide receiver and defensive back Braden Crowley, who earned an honorable mention as a sophomore).
So there will be some new faces for McHenry, but this time it’s not the coach.
“It feels different,” Begrowicz said. “A couple of the (former) juniors have got to step up and we’ve got to be leaders this year. We’re filling their footsteps, do what they did and keep it going.”