Shorewood - Last year, in the first season of the great Drake Zortman experiment with the Shorewood/Messmer football team, the Greyhounds had to scratch and claw and then watch their coach testify in a courtroom to get the squad into the WIAA state playoffs.
This year was a little less dramatic, and a bit more fulfilling, as the Greyhounds earned their second straight WIAA state playoff berth and then missed out on a Midwest Classic Conference title by less than a touchdown to Lake Country Lutheran with a final mark of 7-2.
Fueling that success was a high-octane offense that averaged around 40 points a game and was only stymied by eventual WIAA Division 2 state semifinalist Whitefish Bay in the first round of the playoffs.
As a result of that success, two key cogs in that attack, junior tight end Jonathan Carson and senior running back/linebacker Alec Grimmer earned NOW All-Suburban nods. The first such player choices for the program since defensive back Malachi Krishok in 2008.
In the mind of Zortman, who earned NOW All-Suburban Coach of the Year honors last season, it's all part of a progression.
"We played a whole bunch of sophomores last year and a whole bunch of juniors this year," he said. "Hopefully, we'll play a whole bunch of seniors next year. We've had 11 wins in two years and that's something. And the groundwork for that goes way beyond me. It goes back to (state Hall of Famer) Ron Davies (who took over the program for a time earlier this decade) and some of the teams he turned out.
"It's humbling to be walking in those footsteps and winning a few of those games."
Best players from each school
And part of that success comes from the unification between the Messmer and Shorewood players. Carson is a Messmer student who's making a quick and successful transition to basketball while Grimmer, who also plays basketball and who was part of the Greyhounds WIAA State D2 record-setting 1,600 relay track relay team last spring, goes to Shorewood.
Carson took a year off football in his eighth-grade year but came back to it his freshman year and has been a key part of a unified team.
"Coach Zortman has worked hard at bringing us together," he said. "We really pull together as one team. We hang out together, talk. There's a lot of camaraderie going on. And this year was a lot better than last year, we had a better idea of what coach wanted us to do and when he wanted us to do it."
Carson, who was also a play-making defensive end on the Greyhounds defense, developed a great rapport with fellow junior, quarterback Taylor Dennis this fall and that led to some seriously big plays in the offense (Carson averaged more than 27 yards a catch this season).
"He and I were always talking during practice and after film study," he said. "I was also bigger and faster this season. I tried to make it hard (for defensive backs) to catch me in the open field."
Carson also said he took pride in working on his blocking at camps over the summer.
"I also watched college and pro players how they blocked and that really helped."
A great deal, Zortman said.
"We run behind him 80 percent of the time and then he can pop up and catch a pass deep down the seam," Zortman said, "and anytime Alec was running it was usually behind Jonathan. We just love the kid to death."
Carson's talent is getting noticed as he's gained the interest of Wisconsin, Michigan State and some Ivy League schools.
Grimmer, who made the NOW team as all-purpose selection, also appreciates Carson's efforts.
"There were a number of plays where I tried to get to the edge and then Jonathan would make it easy for me by getting a great seal (on the end)," Grimmer said. "It's nice to have him out there and he's a great big play threat, too."
Program's pride restored
Grimmer said he really enjoyed these last two years with Zortman at the helm. He said there's been some pride restored to the program.
"Those first two years were rough," he said, "but these last two years, especially this year, we really put it together. The best the co-op's ever been. … I like so many things about what we're doing. What coach (Zortman) has really instilled in us is discipline. We always had guys who would say they'd put in the effort, but he (Zortman) got people to buy into it and really put in the time.
"Get to practice on time every day, lift weights every day. As soon as you start doing those things on a regular basis, it gives you a better chance to win and that adds even more reason to have some pride."
Grimmer was really the glue that held the team together on both sides of the ball, Zortman said.
"There was no miscommunication all year (on defense)," Zortman said. "Alec talks to the four guys in front of him, the three along side him and the three behind him. He knows what he's doing, and what they're doing, too. He looks at film, he knows what's going on and he has a nose for the ball.
"And on offense, he's not a 245-pound fullback, but he's our guy. He never goes down on the first hit and never takes a square-on shot."
Grimmer also sees a great future for the program. Zortman would probably like to keep him around as a motivational speaker, too.
"I'm definitely talking to the guys (who are coming back)," Grimmer said. "I'd like to come back in 10-15 years and see where the program is at. If Zortman is still around I expect it to be good."
Your link to the biggest stories in the suburbs delivered Thursday mornings.
Enter your e-mail address above and click "Sign Up Now!" to begin receiving your e-mail newsletter Get the Newsletter!
- Sports wrapups: March 4
- Sports wrapups: Feb. 25
- Bay cruises to league gymnastics title, Homestead third
- Boys basketball: East's Wheeler's free throws lead to upset of Shorewood
- Korolev and Perry lead Shorewood tankers to fourth at state
- Shorewood girls win first hoops title in 42 years
- Sports wrapups: Feb. 18
- Shorewood swimmers win sectional, advance 15 entries to state
- Signing day a success big and small all over the North Shore
- Power in numbers, Shorewood swimmers win Woodland with depth