Success on the football field at Lake Zurich looks a lot like success on the football field at many other high schools.
Talented players are making big plays, and knowledgeable coaches are making good calls.
So then how is it that, over the last seven years, the Bears have managed to distinguish themselves in these parts as head and shoulders above the rest, even the perennial powerhouses?
By far, Lake Zurich is Lake County's most successful football team since 2006. The Bears have played in 27 state playoff games since then, compared to 15 for Carmel, the next-highest team on the list. Lake Zurich has also won a state championship (2007), played in three state finals (2006, 2007 and 2010) and advanced to the semifinals five times. The only other Lake County teams to play in a semifinal game since 2006 are Carmel (2007) and Antioch (2008).
"We've built a great tradition at Lake Zurich," said Lake Zurich senior defensive back Grant Soucy, a team captain.
Indeed, they do like building things at Lake Zurich.
But the building doesn't happen just win by win, it happens block by block, and perhaps that's what has helped to set the Bears apart.
"What we do is that we literally build a road map of how we're going to move through our season," said Lake Zurich senior offensive lineman Jerry Bauer, another captain. "It's symbolic but it's very real."
Every year, the Bears build a pyramid (yes, an actual pyramid) out of real cinder blocks and real bricks. It's a unique structure of motivation and symbolism that is supposed to keep the Bears focused on the only two things they need to be concerned about during the season: winning and each other.
During most of the season, they keep the blocks and bricks stacked in their locker room, except for one block, which gets brought out on game day for the players to touch on their way to the field.
However, for Saturday's big Class 7A quarterfinal game against visiting Rockford Boylan, the Bears have decided to transfer all of the blocks outside and set up the pyramid in the north end zone of their stadium.
"This is a big game and I think it's time we brought it out," Lake Zurich coach David Proffitt said of the pyramid. "That pyramid and what it means is very important to our kids."
For the Bears, seeing or touching at least a part of the pyramid on game day is the psychological equivalent of Notre Dame players touching the "Play Like A Champion Today" sign above the door of their locker room.
"Most games, we just have the one brick, and every time I hit that on my way out to the field, I get goose bumps," Soucy said. "It's going to add some extra motivation seeing all those blocks out there this week. They'll get us pumped up, that's for sure."
The blocks at the bottom of the pyramid, as well as the boards of plywood that hold and separate the different levels, are covered with team goals, which the players set during summer camp. The nine blocks in the middle represent each week of the regular season, and the upper levels of blocks represent each week of the playoffs.
The very top spot in the pyramid is reserved for a state championship trophy, which the Bears were able to set in its rightful place in 2007, the birth year of the pyramid.
To finish off the pyramid at the end of the season, little red bricks, one belonging to each player on the team, are slipped between each cinder block. The players write their names and their own goals on their bricks.
During camp, the full pyramid is assembled once, complete with all of the individual bricks and enough cinder blocks for a state championship run. That way, the Bears can visualize exactly what it's going to take to reach their ultimate goal.
"Having that visual image of all the blocks and all the effort that goes into an entire season really does help us on the field, every game and every practice," Bauer said. "Team goals are the foundation, but every player, with those smaller bricks in between the cinder blocks, helps keep the pyramid strong."
The pyramid also keeps the Bears busy, and the coaches make sure to allow extra time for "brick work."
"If we have more work to do on the bricks, the coaches will cut practice early," Bauer said. "That's how important they think the bricks are."
The players are on the same page. They don't mess around when it comes to the bricks and the blocks. They carefully decorate them with school logos, and they neatly write their goals and mottos on them. But before they even do that, they talk at length about the symbols and the words, and what they all mean.
"We talk about what traditions we want to uphold and what we want our team to be about," said Soucy, who free-handed a replica of a Lake Zurich bear claw on one of the team bricks.
"The main thing we talk about is how no one person is bigger than the program," Bauer said. "We come up with words that our program stands for, things about teamwork and pride and spirit. One of the bricks is a 'family brick' and that's to show how committed we are to each other because we're all in this together as a family."
Together, the Bears have achieved pretty good results with the pyramid as their compass.
But Soucy and Bauer are convinced that the benefits of the pyramid extend far beyond wins and losses, and far beyond the team as a whole.
"The things that we do at Lake Zurich…this is a program that changes people's lives," Soucy said. "I know I wouldn't be the same person without it."
Bauer is different, too.
"I have progressed so much from my freshman year to now," Bauer said. "I've gone from a 14-year-old boy to an 18-year-old man who has learned things that are important not only in football but in life.
"I don't know if other schools do something similar to what we do with the bricks and everything. All I know is that it just really works for us."