St. Charles East quarterback Zach Mitchell achieved nearly everything a high school football player dreams of for his senior season shy of a state title, but his path to success was far different from the one he set out on three years ago.
Zach followed in the footsteps of older brother Jimmy Mitchell, a successful St. Charles East quarterback in his own right who excelled in a spread offense for three seasons under former coach Mike Fields. Zach was elevated to the St. Charles East varsity as a sophomore and played 3 games in the shotgun system.
That's where the similarities end.
After Zach's sophomore season Saints coach Bryce Farquhar made the then-controversial decision to scrap the in-vogue spread attack so commonly used throughout high school football in favor of the tough-to-learn triple option, which relies heavily on split-second decisions by the quarterback.
The change to a run-based offense was a bit of a shock to a burgeoning athlete who grew up challenging his older brother to see who could throw the football furthest.
"It was a little bit of a surprise," the younger Mitchell said, "but with the personnel we had on our team my junior year it was our best option. There were some doubts, but we bought into it pretty much right away."
Mitchell let go of his ego and any thoughts of matching his older brother's gaudy passing statistics and immersed himself in the complicated new system, an unselfish approach that helped earn him the honorary captaincy of the 2016 Daily Herald All-Area Team/Fox Valley.
In his first year running the triple option, he passed for only 452 of the Saints' 2,566 total yards. However, the quarterback showed promise in rushing 43 times for 252 yards and 3 touchdowns. He averaged 5.6 yards per carry.
Also a talented basketball player, Mitchell added 20 pounds to his frame between his junior and senior seasons in order to better absorb the pounding an option quarterback takes. The extra muscle not only made the 6-foot-3, 183-pound senior more durable, when combined with a year's worth of game experience he became a different player.
Mitchell passed his first big test in Week 3 with a 92-yard, 2-touchdown performance in a 30-0 win over Geneva, a team the Saints hadn't beaten since 2012.
St. Charles East's breakthrough win came a week later: a 28-21 victory at rival St. Charles North. Mitchell rushed for 51 yards on 17 carries, but his critical 9-yard touchdown run on fourth down broke a 14-14 third-quarter tie and propelled his team to its most important win in years.
"When they needed something big, he delivered," St. Charles North coach Rob Pomazak said. "It's the mark of a great athlete who can put his team on his shoulders. He was a different player from his junior year to his senior year and that's a tribute to his hard work and mental strength. That offense is difficult. To run it as well as he did says a lot about his commitment to the team."
Another huge victory came the following week against Batavia. Mitchell threw for 52 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 98 yards. His 31-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown run sealed the win over the five-time defending Upstate Eight River champs.
More big games from Mitchell followed en route to an undefeated regular season and the UEC River title. He threw for 186 yards and a touchdown and rushed for another in an 18-point win over Bartlett. Against Larkin he rushed for 110 yards and 3 touchdowns. He ran for 123 yards and 3 scores in an opening-round playoff blowout of Lockport, and his 25-yard touchdown pass to Josh Luedtke lifted the Saints to a 17-10, second-round playoff win at New Trier.
"He was probably the smoothest kid we saw on film or in person all year," Larkin coach Dragan Teonic said. "He didn't overpower you physically and you're not awed by his physical ability, but he played so well and error free all year. He was really the catalyst that made them go with great reads in big situations."
Fronted by an offensive line that returned veterans Max Schumann (6-foot-4, 295 pounds), Logan Waxman (6-0, 250) and Nicolas Kane (5-10, 210), Mitchell rushed for 897 yards and 12 touchdowns in an offense that purposely ate as much clock as possible between plays to dominate time of possession and keep opposing offenses off the field.
He showed he could still huck the ball around, too. Mitchell completed 54 of 105 passes for 964 yards and 12 more scores. He was intercepted 5 times.
Though his passing yards paled in comparison to older brother Jimmy's 2,377 as a senior, Zach's team fared far better. Jimmy's 2013-14 Saints went 6-4 and bowed out in the first round of the playoffs. Zach's Saints matched the best season in school history, along the way setting program records for points scored (442) and rushing touchdowns. They won 11 games for the first time since 1998 and for the third time in the program's history, and they reached a state quarterfinal for the first time in 11 years. Mitchell was named UEC River offensive player of the year for his part in his team's success.
Though St. Charles East's magical season ended in a 10-7 Class 8A quarterfinal loss at Palatine, Mitchell and the Saints can look back with pride knowing they equaled the best season in school history.
And though his path to success was different from he originally set out to take, the final destination was worth the journey.
"This exceeded the expectations I had prior to the season," said Mitchell, who intends to study business in college. "We did everything people said we couldn't do."