Experienced offensive line, healthy AJ Henning have Lincoln-Way East at No. 1

Lincoln-Way East's Jack Baltz prepares to receive the snap. Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times.
Lincoln-Way East's Jack Baltz prepares to receive the snap. Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times.

Lincoln-Way East, the Sun-Times preseason top-ranked team, has a fun way to describe rankings and social media chatter: rat poison.

“We embrace the pressure of everything,” Griffins senior Gus Christensen said. “But we just don’t pay attention to rankings or stuff on social media. [Coach Rob Zvonar] calls it rat poison. We like being No. 1 though and want to keep it as long as possible.”

Star running back AJ Henning returns, he was spectacular in Lincoln-Way East’s Class 8A state title game win against Loyola last season.

“[Henning] got bigger, faster and stronger if you can believe that,” Zvonar said. “He went from 170 to a solid 185. He’s much more muscular, I think that will help him. We’re excited to see what he is gonna do healthy for an entire season.”

Henning has offers from 25 colleges. He plans to cut down his list after the season.

“I’m ready to get after it this year,” Henning said. “Being fully heathy will help a lot. It’ll be great to run freely and play my full game.”

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The Griffins have three starters back on the offensive line: Anthony Sottosanto, Brian Ciciura and Dane Eggert. They will be the team’s backbone.

“We’ve never brought back two three-year starters and another returning starter,” Zvonar said. “That’s the most experience that we’ve ever had coming back on the offensive line.”

There are only a handful of starters back on defense, but Sottosanto has been very impressed in practice.

“The defensive line has been amazing,” Sottosanto said. “We talk a lot of crap to one another and I won’t tell them that directly but they are really good. The best defense we are going to play all year is ours.”

Jack Baltz steps in at quarterback. He moved into the district last year from Alabama.

“He could have played for most teams last year,” Zvonar said. “He’s a 6-5 gunslinger. Jack did an amazing job of staying patient last year and learning. Last year we would run to set up the pass. This year we might use the pass to set up the run.”

Lincoln-Way East’s depth is a massive strength. The Griffins could probably field two pretty good high school football teams.

“With our numbers and the way our program is set up we are going to have a large percentage of senior starters each year,” Zvonar said. “That doesn’t mean the juniors aren’t good players. They are just in a program where there are not a lot of times we have to fill in a gap with a younger player.”

Receivers Jackson Ritter and Matt Judd should be key contributors. Zvonar also expects big things from junior running back Devon Williams.

It’s hard to find a real weakness with the Griffins. A lot of the players have never lost a high school football game, so dealing with any adversity the season throws up could be a challenge.

“That’s true,” Zvonar said. “We could lose Week 1 or 2 to Naperville Central or Crete-Monee and you always wonder how a team is gonna fight back. But in a nine-game season you have to be able to learn your lessons without experiencing a loss.”

LINCOLN-WAY EAST SCHEDULE
Aug. 24 at Crete-Monee
Aug. 31 vs. Naperville Central
Sept. 7 vs. Andrew
Sept. 14 at Sandburg
Sept. 21 vs. Lincoln-Way Central
Sept. 28 vs. Homewood-Flossmoor
Oct. 5 at Lockport
Oct. 11 at Thornwood
Oct. 19 vs. Bolingbrook

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