Before football season, the focus of attention at Glendora High School was squarely on senior quarterback J. J. O'Laughlin--and with good reason.
After all, O'Laughlin was a preseason All-American selection and had been one of the premier quarterbacks in the San Gabriel Valley the previous two seasons.
In recent years, Glendora's running game had languished in the background. In Glendora's aerial circus, the running was merely a sideshow.
But this season there has been a change afoot at Glendora.
O'Laughlin is still a player in the spotlight for the Tartans, but junior running back Bill Zernickow may have stolen the show.
The 16-year-old Zernickow has rushed for 1,128 yards--third best in the valley--and nine touchdowns in 159 carries to lead Glendora to one of its best starts ever at 8-1.
Perhaps the man most surprised about the development of the 5-11 and 185-pound Zernickow is Coach Dean Karnoski.
"After last season we wanted to give the running back the ball more this year," Karnoski said. "We didn't know it was going to be him. We didn't know he was going to do the things he did to improve himself."
Zernickow started as a sophomore flanker but gained more attention for his running. He rushed for 185 yards in 49 carries and caught 16 passes for 180 yards.
"He wasn't really a running back last year," Karnoski said. "He was more of a receiver-type back. I guess he's improved in his speed and strength. He always had the fluidness and the moves. But he went out and improved his speed and strength."
The coach said a strong work ethic has been the biggest factor in Zernickow's marked improvement.
"He's a good kid and a hard runner," Karnoski said. "He worked very hard over the summer and it's paying off for him. It's always nice to see kids who work hard and succeed."
Zernickow credits much of his team's success to its offensive line.
"The offensive linemen are bigger and stronger and they've done a really good job," he said. "Most of the line has been playing together since they were sophomores. Any team that has a top rusher needs to have a top line to do anything."
In his case, Zernickow says, it has made a big difference.
"You know when you run the football that they're going to open the holes," he said. "You just have to worry about the defensive backs."
While Karnoski agreed that the offensive line has been a key element in Zernickow's success, he didn't play down the running back's ability.
"The line has spent a lot of time in the weight room," he said. "Four of our offensive linemen have been together since their sophomore year. They're a good line but he's a good runner. He has done of lot of it on his own."
Zernickow gave an inkling of his talent as a running back when he rushed for 1,500 yards as a member of the freshman team.
But he didn't receive much opportunity to run in his first season on the varsity.
"It was more of a once-in-a-while thing," Zernickow said. "We just liked to pass a lot more. When you have one of the top college prospects on the team (at quarterback) you might as well use him."
He said that while last season did nothing to build his statistics, it went a long way toward strengthening him as a player.
"Last year was more of a learning experience for me," Zernickow said. "(The coaches) probably wanted me to get used to being on the varsity and grow a bit."
He added that he is much better for the experience.
"It has given me the experience to handle situation where I'm up against bigger people," Zernickow said. "I'm more sure about myself and what's going to happen. Last year I broke my nose in a game (against Don Lugo), so I know what's the worst thing that can happen."
With his sophomore year behind him, Zernickow set out to improve himself during the off-season and spent a lot of time in the school's weight room.
"I feel like I'm hitting the holes a lot better than last year," he said. "I also feel a little stronger."
His coach said Zernickow needs more strength for next season.
"I think he has to put on a little more weight and get a little stronger," Karnoski said. "I think he could work on his speed a little too. I think most good backs punish people, and he needs to get to the point where he punishes people."
Zernickow, who runs the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds, says he can improve his speed by competing in sprints for the school track team. He competes in the 100- and 200-meter dashes and long jump.
"My initial burst is pretty good, but I have problems switching gears and breaking away from people."
Karnoski said Zernickow has shown that he has the proper mental approach and physical skills to develop into a major-college prospect.
"He needs to improve but I think he can do it," Karnoski said. "He's a very hard worker and he's a tough kid. He can definitely become a college prospect."
Although recruiting doesn't usually start in earnest until after a player's junior season, Zernickow has received a handful of recruiting letters from major colleges such as USC, UCLA, Oregon, Colorado State, Utah and Kansas.
Zernickow has managed to keep this sudden attention in stride.
In fact, he says the attention has arisen from Glendora's victories. "It's just been a case of me being in the right place at the right time."
He also said O'Laughlin deserves some of the credit.
"It doesn't hurt to have a great quarterback," Zernickow said.
No, it doesn't.
But, with Zernickow in the starting lineup, the running game for Glendora is no longer just a passing fancy.