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Healthy receiver/running back AJ Henning means sky is the limit for No. 3 Lincoln-Way East

AJ Henning, the most electric talent in the state, played sparingly last season. The Michigan recruit has battled injuries for the last two seasons.

Lincoln-Way East’s A.J. Henning (3) carries the flag.
Lincoln-Way East’s A.J. Henning (3) carries the flag.
Allen Cunningham/For the Sun-Times.

Lincoln-Way East didn’t just win its first 12 games last season; the Griffins dominated the best programs in the area. The scores were almost hard to believe.

Lincoln-Way East routed Crete-Monee 41-13, took down Naperville Central 38-19, blanked Lincoln-Way Central 38-0 and had a running-clock, 48-6 victory against Homewood-Flossmoor. Then came another shutout — 31-0 against Bolingbrook. The playoffs started with a 49-0 romp against St. Charles East and a 45-0 blitzing of Glenbard West.

Most observers thought the Griffins were one of the best area teams in recent memory. But Loyola ended that talk, knocking off Lincoln-Way East 24-16 in the Class 8A semifinals in Wilmette.

‘‘It didn’t end like we all had hoped,’’ Griffins coach Rob Zvonar said. ‘‘We accept that. You never in your wildest dreams think some of our margins of victory we had in some of our games are going to happen. It was probably an anomaly. It will probably never happen again. When those things happened, anything short of a championship was going to be a letdown. We will own that.’’

AJ Henning, Lincoln-Way East’s breakout star and the most electric talent in the state, played sparingly last season. The Michigan recruit has been battling injuries for the last two seasons.

‘‘He’s been dealing with it since sophomore year,’’ Zvonar said. ‘‘He overcame it and made huge plays to help us win a state championship [in 2017]. Going through last year was some tough adversity. It’s going to be a lot of fun if he is a guy that can play the whole game from week to week.’’

Henning, a wide receiver/running back, was healthy for track season and finished fourth in the state in the 100-meter dash.

‘‘I’m just very happy for him personally,’’ Zvonar said. ‘‘The fun part is if teams key too much on him, we have some other guys. He will open up things for everybody.’’

The Griffins have a bit of a question mark at quarterback. Seniors Kyle Quinn and Ty Slager are competing for the job. Expect Henning to see some time there in the wildcat formation, too.

‘‘Kyle Quinn has paid his dues,’’ Zvonar said. ‘‘His arm is good, but he is a kid that can beat you with his feet as much as his arm. Kyle’s had a great summer, and Ty Slager is pushing him.’’

Lincoln-Way East has talent all over the field. Senior Sean McLaughlin plays defensive end and tight end and has committed to Northwestern. Zvonar has multiple solid options at linebacker and in the secondary.

‘‘Defensively, it starts with our bookends,’’ Zvonar said. ‘‘Adrian Wilson [a Bowling Green commit] and Sean McLaughlin, two Division I defensive ends that are 6-4 and 6-7 and get their big paws up in the passing lane and get after the quarterback. Our depth at defensive line isn’t great, but if we stay healthy there, we will have a shot.’’

Running backs Jamal Johnson and Devon Williams gained a ton of experience when Henning was out last season. Both are poised for a big season.

‘‘Maybe we were a little more talented last year, but talent is not everything,’’ Zvonar said. ‘‘It’s an awful lot about leadership and unity and character. Not saying last year was poor in those areas, just that you don’t always have to be the most talented to have success.

‘‘Loyola was excellent, and I thought we underachieved that day. I think, if anything, it will make this group even more hungry.’’

Contributing: Mike Clark

Lincoln-Way East schedule

Aug. 30 vs. Stevenson
Sept. 6 at Naperville Central
Sept. 13 vs. Bradley-Bourbonnais
Sept. 20 at Bolingbrook
Sept. 27 vs. Homewood-Flossmoor
Oct. 4 at Lincoln-Way Central
Oct. 11 vs. Lockport
Oct. 18 at Sandburg
Oct. 25 vs. Lincoln-Way West