If Cary-Grove athletics had its own Mt. Rushmore, the sculptor would be sharpening his chisel and studying a photo of Zach Marszal's face right about now.
Several premier athletes have passed through Cary-Grove, particularly in the past 15 years as the football program developed into a state power. Names like Kevin Kaplan, Brian Mitz, Alex Kube, Andrew Lorman, Eric Chandler, Alex Hembrey, Chad McCarron and Kyle Norberg are forever emblazoned in the memories of Trojan fans and foes alike.
While each of those special athletes added to the Cary-Grove athletic legacy in his own way, none was more respected within the building on Three Oaks Rd. itself than Marszal, a 6-foot, 182-pound recent graduate named Cary-Grove Male Athlete of the Year for a second straight year.
"That's never happened here before and we've had some good ones," Cary-Grove director of athletics Jim Altendorf said this week. "That tells you something about the caliber of athlete Zach is."
Marszal played football and baseball and excelled at both. Few locals have played high school football at the level Marszal achieved last fall, when he helped lead the Trojans to a state runner-up finish in Class 6A. The youngest of Steve and Annette Marszal's four children bucked a program trend by becoming the only full-time, two-way player in coach Brad Seaburg's mostly two-platoon system.
Playing the difficult position of strong safety in defensive coordinator Don Sutherland's 3-3-5 scheme, Marszal brought a level of physicality and tenacity to the game for three varsity seasons. He finished his successful senior campaign with 42.5 tackles (3.5 for loss), 2 sacks and 3 interceptions.
"We do not like to play players two ways in football, but the reality of it was we could not avoid playing Zach both ways," Sutherland said. "He was just so good defensively."
Offensively, Marszal brought his physical brand of football to the split end position. His outstanding downfield blocking helped pave the way for an offense that gained 4.936 yards in 13 games. For good measure, he made 13 catches for 231 yards and 4 touchdowns, a veritable receiving frenzy considering the Cary-Grove option offense's run-first, run-almost-always history. He also rushed for 162 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Marszal was recently named to the Daily Herald All-Area baseball team for the second straight season after he led the 19-win Trojans with a .400 batting average (38-for-95). His production increased to a .463 clip with runners in scoring position. He stole an area-best 15 bases, hit 9 doubles, 3 triples (tied for the area lead), 2 home runs and drove in 28 runs.
For his accomplishments during the 2012-13 school year, Zach Marszal has been named Daily Herald Male Athlete of the Year in the Fox Valley.
"I'm kind of stunned," he said upon receiving the news Friday. "It's a great accomplishment, but this isn't just for me. This is for all the coaches that helped me throughout my career and all the players I've played with. It's an accomplishment, I think, for all of us."
Such a statement is typical of Marszal's humble, giving nature. Though he plays football and baseball with a ferocity forged from competitiveness, the affable 17-year-old Cary resident is also the first to shake the hand of an opponent who played well, and he goes out of his way to credit others.
He'd be a great fit for C-G's figurative Mt. Rushmore for another reason: Marszal never shied away from being the face of the program.
"I love the spotlight," he said. "I always want to be up in the big moment, whether it was on the football field or on the baseball diamond. I always wanted to be the one to make the play and give that boost to our team so we could go on to win any game."
Of all the performances turned in by area athletes this season, perhaps none stood out more than Marszal's in Cary-Grove's 41-14 dismantling of upstart Huntley on Saturday, Oct. 6.
Assigned to cover Huntley 6-foot-4 receiver Bryce Beschorner, who led receivers areawide last fall with 44 catches for 818 yards and 11 touchdowns, Marszal intercepted 2 passes and returned one for a 32-yard touchdown. He demonstrated his all-around athletic prowess in that contest by also scoring on a 63-yard reverse and a 42-yard reception.
"I wasn't expecting anything like that," He said. "It just happened."
"That game stands out the most," Seaburg said. "Zach was a great one. He had a combination of athleticism, strength and speed that allowed him to play both ways at two pretty tough positions. For him to play that physically and never leave the field was outstanding.
"Another thing about Zach is he came in as a fullback as a freshman. We were so fortunate this year to have a split end with the mentality of a fullback who could go up and catch a ball and was a great blocker. We put him in the flexible alignment where he was playing like a tight end almost."
Though he'll always appreciate the Huntley game, Marszal recalls another moment from the 2012 football season as his favorite.
"Right after we beat Lake Forest, just realizing we were going to state and how excited everybody was," he said of the Class 6A semifinal. "The last two minutes of the game on the sideline, everyone was hugging each other and jumping around. It didn't feel real. It all felt just like a dream, but it was really cool to be a part of."
Marszal took approximately one week off after football ended in late November. He was back in the gym preparing for baseball, his preferred sport, in early December. He continued to train with the juniors on the football team out of habit, doing agility drills and lifting weights. That was followed by an hour in the batting cage.
The highlight of his spring season came on April 26 in a home victory against eventual sectional champion Jacobs. Cary-Grove led 5-1 until Jacobs slugger Connor Conzelman blasted a grand slam to key a 5-run seventh inning that turned the game around.
The Trojans rallied in their half, scoring once to tie the game 6-6. Marszal then stepped into the box and hit a changeup for an opposite-field, walk-off single.
"There' a reason he was a two-time all-area and all-conference player and batted in the three-spot," said Sutherland, also Cary-Grove's baseball coach for the last 27 seasons. "And being a two-time athlete of the year at our school is pretty special."
Seaburg said Marszal most certainly could have found a college football program that would have welcomed him, but the player's passion is baseball. After graduating with a 3.7 grade-point average, Marszal will continue his baseball career at McHenry County College with the intention of eventually transferring to a four-year program.
"That's the idea," he said. "We'll see where it takes me."
If he plays with the same relentlessness he demonstrated in high school, expect Marszal to carve out quite a future for himself.
Follow Jerry on Twitter: @jerfitzpatrick