Usually, the first official day of football practice is all about looking forward.
But at Lake Zurich, the past will likely be on the radar for awhile, if not all season.
The current Bears are trying their best to move forward from the bullying, hazing and sexual abuse scandal that rocked the program and the community last school year. Players hazing players on school grounds eventually led to the departure of athletic director Rolly Vazquez and former head football coach David Proffitt, among others.
New head coach Luke Mertens, formerly the head coach of a successful program at Lakes High School that he guided for 13 seasons from the first day the school opened in 2004, won't allow his players to hide from the past, even as they were busily preparing for a new season during Monday's first official day of football practice in the state of Illinois.
"I've been honest with the kids and I've told them that you are living in a dream world if you think that this is not going to constantly be thrown at you," Mertens said. "And I told them, 'You all deserve it.' The first thing is just accept that, no matter if you were a participant or not. We've got to own that. That's step one. And when you own things, people tend to be a little more understanding. But if you get defensive with these things, it's only going to get worse.
"So I told them, let's control what we can control. Let's walk into Game One, let's play a hard-fought game, let's make sure we shake hands win or lose, let's leave the locker room cleaner than it's ever been. Let's conduct ourselves with class. That's all we can do at this point."
Mertens already sees positive signs with his players. He's been impressed with the way they are conducting themselves both on and off the field.
"I knew this before I even took the job: These kids we have are great kids," Mertens said. "Something horrible happened, we're not denying that. But we have great kids with great parents and that was part of the intrigue for me (in taking the job). I knew there were a lot of great people here and since I've been here, that has only been re-affirmed. It's just that now, we just need to make better decisions. I thought that was a good lesson I could teach the kids here at Lake Zurich."
Mertens is leaning heavily on senior linebacker Jack Sanborn, a three-year varsity starter, for his leadership and positive influence. Sanborn, who committed in March to play football at Wisconsin next year, says the team is ready for a fresh start.
"We're just such a tight group that we sort of rallied around each other," Sanborn said of last year's hazing saga. "And now, going into the season, we're focused on one thing (winning). We understand that things might come up, that people might say stuff. But for us, it's just keeping a level head and focusing about what we have to do on the field.
"I don't worry about this (being a distraction), and I don't think anyone else on the team does either. We are focused on one thing and we're going to go out there and do our best at it."
The Bears will be doing that with essentially a brand-new coaching staff. Sanborn says he and his teammates have enjoyed getting to know Mertens and his style.
"All the players, we all trust the new coaches," Sanborn said. "We didn't know a lot about Coach Mertens at first, but once we heard he got the job, we went to our phones and we were looking up his program (at Lakes) and doing our homework.
"Honestly, what he's done for us and our program so far has been about so much more than football. It's about respect. That's one of the big things he's harped on. Not just respecting our opponenets, but at school, he wants us to be the most respectful kids in the classroom. He tells us that football can teach us life lessons you can't get any other way, things that you can take into the real world. It's more that just football with him."
But the football has been fun, too, with lively drills, contests and theme days that keep practices fresh and light.
Sanborn says he and his teammates are upbeat and optimitic about the future, intent on improving on last year's 7-4 record and second-round playoff exit.
"I think we're athletic and we have experience where experience is needed in important positions," Sanborn said. "We have leaders who understand how to play in big moments and big games and how to keep that level head.
"I'm excited. If we stay focused and keep a level head, we have the opportunity to become a very good team. The goal is to go as far as we can, and that is up to us. We control our own destiny."