In the seven years prior to Tim Zasada’s arrival at Thornton Fractional North High School the Meteor’s gridiron squad was a combined 6-57, having not won more than a single game each of those seasons. The football program had no energy, no excitement, and no reason to believe things would change.
Enter Zasada, a former Hammond High coach, who came to the Calumet City school in 2001 with one simple formula on turning things around: get his players, his coaches, and the community as loud, intense, and even as brass as possible. While his occasional behavior has infuriated opposing coaches and spectators, there is no questioning the results Zasada has produced at a school sports writers so gently labeled as “the whipping boy” of Chicago’s south suburbs.
In the past five seasons TF North has amassed a 25-20 regular season record, qualified for the state playoffs on three occasions, and shared a conference title in 2002. Most importantly, opposing teams began giving something to the Meteors missing for nearly a decade: respect.
But for everything Zasada has accomplished in his TF North tenure, there is one hurdle he is yet to overcome: a win over rival TF South, coming off a 9-0 regular season campaign in 2005. The two teams meet this Friday in Lansing, with the Rebels having won the last nine meetings. Zasada is 0-6 against South, which includes a second-round playoff loss in 2002, but his Meteors come confidently rolling at 4-0 this season.
However, following last week’s 21-7 win over Creston (MI.), North must replace quarterback Kalente Jackson (out with a separated shoulder) and four two-starters lost this week due to injury or academic requirements.
“I do not consider it a hex,” Zasada said in regards to South’s long-running success against North. “We will have to find a way to replace a quarterback on a week’s notice, implement a new offense, and replace four other two-way starters that we lost to injury or eligibility which has come out this week. We had nine two-way starters play vs. Creston last Saturday and we now will have five that will be healthy enough to play this week. Needless to say we have our work cut out for us!”
North’s futility in earning wins against the district rival is frustrating, but understandable considering how few teams find ways to hand the Rebels losses. Under Illinois hall-of-fame coach Tom Padjen, South has established a landmark of prominence on the football field very few others have in the Chicagoland area.
“We are realistic in the sense that has great feeder programs (we have none) and a great staff to go along with those programs,” Zasada said. “I feel we have done a great job to stay in some games when we had no business being in the game.”
Ironically, the last year South did not qualify for the Illinois playoffs was 1997 when they finished with a 5-4 record. North’s last win in this long-time rivalry came that same season.
While his predecessor owns North’s last win in the series, Zasada faced a monumental challenge his first three meetings with South considering the Meteor defense was taking on Pierre Thomas. Now leading the backfield charge at the University of Illinois, Thomas is widely regarded by many as the best football product ever coming out of Lansing and was rated as the top Midwest region running back his senior year.
“Pierre Thomas was the best player I ever coached against,” Zasada said. “You can stop him for a few series but you know in the end he would find a way to make the big play.”
In Zasada’s first two meetings against the Rebels when the fourth quarter came the outcome did not seem in doubt. But it was that defeat in the second round of the 2002 playoffs marking Zasada’s most frustrating loss to South, one in which North held the lead at halftime only to see an on-side kick go bad begin a second-half Rebel offensive barrage thus leading them to victory. South would fall a touchdown short of advancing to the Illinois Class 6A state championship that season.
“The playoff loss was frustrating because we had a great game plan and some chances to really extend the lead,” Zasada said. “However, Thomas was a special athlete and he was at home and he delivered in the second half.”
In 2003 Thomas was no longer a factor, but the results had not changed. Last season South won 20-12 in a game highlighted by mistakes and missed opportunities. South steadily moved forward en route to an undefeated regular season, but North finished a disappointing 3-6 marking Zasada’s least successful season in Calumet City.
But with a new year comes new hope, and for the first time in over a decade the Meteors will go into this next chapter of the south side series holding an unfamiliar position: the favorite. While North has not been beaten in the first weeks of the season South comes in 3-1 following a 20-14 loss last week against previously win-less Rich South, whom the Meteors beat 14-6 in week three.
This year’s contest will likely come down to whether or not North’s tenacious and aggressive defense can stop all-state quarterback Joe Rizzi, and if South’s corners can contain division I-A prospect Landon Cox, one of the area’s best receivers. But while North may come in Friday as the favorite to many, thus eliminating the David vs. Goliath mentality, until the final score reads victory for the Meteors they are still holding the slingshot.
“We will continue to worry about what T.F. North does,” Zasada said in regards to Friday’s game. “Joe Rizzi is great but he becomes greater if we blow a coverage, do not get any heat on him, or jump off sides, etc. We need to do the things we have done in the previous four weeks and that is limit turnovers, cash in when we are in the red zone, and be the more physical team.”