Even though he hailed from the sprawl of suburban Chicago, Nat Zunkel was aware of a much smaller town more than three hours to the west and its local high school football team.|
"I knew about Aledo. Everybody knows Aledo," he said.
Of course, he was referring to a proud gridiron tradition that produced six state-final appearances, three state championships, three more Final Four runs and a string of 13 straight playoff appearances from 1996 to 2008.
And when Aledo made the choice to consolidate with neighboring Lincoln Trail Conference rival Westmer starting with the 2009-10 school year, it was Zunkel who was tapped to start a new tradition with the Mercer County Golden Eagles.
However, the shadow of the past greats who called George Pratt Memorial Field home loomed large over Zunkel at first. A newcomer to the area, he was coming in with just a year's experience as a varsity football coach at Mattoon, finishing 2-7 with the Green Wave in the fall of '08.
"I was the new guy," he said. "I didn't know Joy from Aledo, New Boston from Seaton."
What's more, he had to fill some pretty big coaching shoes to fill after succeeding Cullen Welter, who coached all three Green Dragon state-championship teams (1998, 2001, 2002) and compiled a 113-22 record in his 11 seasons in Aledo before departing for his current job at Monticello.
But like all coaches, Zunkel knew what would cure any possible ailments resulting from the departure of a championship-caliber coach.
"Winning solves a lot of things. Once we started performing and doing well (as Mercer County), things came together," Zunkel stated. "Of course, there's pressure, but it's how you handle it. When I first got here, I didn't handle it as well as I do now."
Following two straight second-round 2A exits in 2009 and '10, last year's Golden Eagle team was the one that really woke up the echoes of past local football greats. The Golden Eagles won 11 of 12 games, the LTC championship and advanced to the 2A quarterfinals, with only a bitterly contested 7-0 loss to league rival Stark County halting their advancement.
"It takes a while to carve out a niche," said Zunkel. "Last year was the big turning point in the program; the effort and intensity really improved. I knew we had something special with these kids when they were freshmen and sophomores."
Now, Zunkel's kids — including a senior class that went from being junior-high rivals to high-school teammates in less than a year — are on the brink of something even more special. Mercer County takes a 13-0 record into Friday's 1 p.m. Class 2A state championship game against Belleville Althoff (10-3) at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.
The Golden Eagles are taking aim at their first post-consolidation state championship, and the first for any team from the county since Welter's 14-0 2002 Aledo club won a second straight 2A title.
"I'm proud of my kids for the way they've molded together," said Zunkel, who this year also took over as Mercer County's athletic director. "In eighth grade, they were bitter rivals. Now, they're playing together for the state title. That's just amazing."
Having won 41 of 47 games since stepping into the Eagles' nest, Zunkel has an equal pride in his coaching staff, consisting of Brian Dennison (who was formerly the A.D.), Brian Adams, Eric Russell, Bill Osmun, Dustin Murray, Austin Skiles, Luke Boucher, Andy Russell, Dennis Runbom, Ryan Koresko and Jeremy Finch.
"The big thing we talk about is trust and loyalty," he said, "and I trust my staff to do the best job possible at all times. These guys believe in the kids and believe in each other, and they're undyingly loyal. I'm very happy with my staff, and I believe we have the best-coached kid at each position."
Over the past four years, Zunkel's own position in the town — and in the hearts of its football fans — has become just as strong.
"The welcomeness of all this has been a godsend for me and my family," said Zunkel. "I've got three small boys, and when you get to a new town, you're always a bit cautious, but everything has fallen into place for us here. We definitely feel at home."
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