Naperville Central (IL) Building for the Long Haul

By Eric S. Smith

Blake Zinn inherited what amounted to an old house when he took over as the head coach of the Naperville Central (IL) lacrosse team at the beginning of this season.

Much like a fixer-upper, the Redhawks had the frame and foundation of a solid team, but seemed neglected at times by previous owners. In the last four seasons, Naperville Central won just 30 percent of its games.

"In the four previous years, there were three coaches, and they didn't have the respect of the kids," Zinn said. "The biggest thing was changing their attitude and making the kids more disciplined."

Zinn and his staff believed the remodeling of the program would take years of hard work.

"When I was hired, I told everyone not to expect anything the first year," Zinn said. "Give it two or three years for the younger kids to be ready, and then expect something big."

But the project has moved along nicely, and Zinn and crew are well ahead of schedule. The Redhawks are 10-3, earning their first winning season in school history and winning their conference without a league loss. In fact, Naperville Central is the top-ranked team in Illinois Division II lacrosse and has a LaxPower Power Rating of 89.25.

"If somebody would have told me we'd have this kind of season when I took over," Zinn said, "I would not have believed them."

But like any major renovation, the Naperville Central job had a few vulnerable moments. In the season opener, the Redhawks squared off against St. Ignatius Prep and it wasn't pretty. Naperville Central lost, 12-1, in what has been the lowest point of the season for the Redhawks and Zinn.

"On the bus ride home from that first game, I thought I wasn't going to make it. I thought it was going to be awful," Zinn said. "We didn't scrimmage anyone, and in hindsight that was my fault. They had bad habits from the previous coach. Plus, they were getting on each other in a negative fashion. We really had to change the attitudes. Before the first game, I thought we could do well, but after that I was thinking ‘What did I get myself into?'

"I don't think I've regretted it since."

And why should the coach feel that way any longer? The Redhawks are rolling and the turnaround came quickly. The real turning point in the season, according to Zinn, was in the third game against defending Div. II champion Benet Academy. While Naperville Central lost, 12-9, they proved they could hang with some of the best.

Zinn has not only worked at changing the culture and attitude of Naperville Central, but he has also changed the lacrosse philosophy of the team. The Redhawks used to be defense-oriented and play a pressure zone exclusively. Now they play man-to-man defense, and rather than relying on set plays on offense, they have an open, free-wheeling style. That has led to them averaging more than 12 goals per game.

The offense is led by junior Jake Mann--who is tops on the team in goals and second in assists--and sophomore Nate Widman, who has won 74 percent of his face-offs. Those two players account for 60 percent of the offense and will return next year.

"I preach to shoot the rock and push," Zinn said. "I tell the kids everyday that if your hands are free you're shooting."

The success of this season has the Redhawks now in a peculiar position. They are guaranteed a playoff spot and will likely have home-field advantage until the championship game. But the inexperience does raise a few concerns for Zinn.

"The lack of experience may hurt us, and the fact that others have been there before may be a factor," Zinn said. "But we haven't backed down yet."

Zinn did not expect such a quick remodel, but now the house that is Naperville Central lacrosse may be the best on the block. Or even the state.

2009-05-21



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