Preseason No. 5: Lincoln-Way East

Lincoln-Way East QB Blake Winkler will look to overcome a string of disappointing playoff losses for the program. Scott Powers for ESPNChicago.com

Last season: 9-2 overall, 7-0 Southwest Suburban Blue, lost in the Class 7A second round to Glenbard West, ranked No. 17 in the final ESPNChicago.com 2010 poll

Season ahead: Lincoln-Way East coach Rob Zvonar can’t help but notice the similarities between his current team and his 2005 squad.

Like in 2005, this year’s Griffins return talent all over the field, including an experienced quarterback, and are coming off a successful season. The uncertainty is where the 2011 edition will end up. In 2005, the Griffins won a state championship.

The one hump this year’s team especially has to get over is advancing past the second round of the playoffs. Lincoln-Way East has had its season ended in the second round the past three years.

“I think this group without being arrogant just wants to put that target on our back and be the group that turns the tide again,” Zvonar said.

One reason for the Griffins to be optimistic this season is the return of senior quarterback Blake Winkler. As a junior and in is his first year starting on varsity, Winkler was among the area’s top quarterbacks and led the Griffins to an undefeated conference season.

A year later, Zvonar believes he’s capable of even more.

“Just his grasp of the offense,” Zvonar said. “I know it’s a cliché, but he’s truly a coach on the field. He can certainly not only know what he has to do, but he can pretty much put the other 10 guys on the offense where they need to be. He’ll be distributing the ball, spreading the ball around and making sure the offense attacks the defense in every gap horizontally and vertically.”

Winkler will be surrounded by offensive talent as well. Wide receivers Jason Robertson and Jay Yancy have big-play ability, and running back Tyler Starke will make sure defenses don’t focus only on the pass. The Griffins also have a massive offensive line, averaging more than 260 pounds a player.

Star power: Jason Robertson falls in that elite category of wide receiver in the state, and there are only a few of them. Robertson, who is committed to Illinois, caught 25 passes for 600 yards and nine touchdowns last season. “First and foremost, he’s an absolute fierce competitor that has tremendous athleticism and ball skills,” Zvonar said. “He put himself on the map a year ago with some explosive plays. He can beat people deep and catch short-to-intermediate balls and get you yards after the catch.”

Breakout performer: Senior safety Kevin Slawkowski was hampered by an injury last season and didn’t get a full chance to show his ability in the secondary. That’s expected to change this season. “If he gets healthy, he can be as good of a free safety as we’ve had,” Zvonar said.

Defensive difference-maker: There are question marks for the Griffins' defense, but defensive tackle Matt Solner helps relieve some of those concerns. Solner, who is drawing Division I interest, should be around the ball plenty this season. “Matt Solner is just a throwback,” Zvonar said. “He’s a blue-collar kid with great size and athleticism. He’s a very lean 260 pounds.

Newcomer to watch: Junior Adam O’Grady reminds Zvonar of ESPNChicago.com all-area selection Pat Meehan with his all-around ability at linebacker.“We really like what we’re seeing out of him,” Zvonar said.

Schedule breakdown: The Southwest Suburban Blue should be highly competitive again and among the area’s top conferences. Lincoln-Way East and Homewood-Flossmoor are the favorites, but Bolingbrook, Lockport and Sandburg shouldn’t be too far behind. The Griffins should have no troubles in their non-conference with Edwardsville and Dunbar in the opening two weeks.

Key game: Sept. 16 at Homewood-Flossmoor – Homewood-Flossmoor gave Lincoln-Way Way its toughest conference game last season. The Griffins pulled out a 31-21 win. Homewood-Flossmoor also advanced further than any conference team in the playoffs, making it to the Class 8A semifinals. This game could decide the conference champion.

What they’re saying: “We have not been a great playoff team the last couple years,” Zvonar said. “This team would like to break that second-round stigma.”