Zach Zehr, far left, brought home Arcola's fourth state championship in his third season.

The first word that comes to mind for those coached by Zach Zehr is discipline.

"He came out of the military and you can tell," Arcola senior Wyatt Fishel said. "He wanted things done a certain way. And if you didn't do it that way, he wasn't going to put up with it."

Arcola did things Zehr's way this season and the result was a 14-0 season and Arcola's first state title since 1988. That earned Zehr the H&R Area Coach of the Year Award.

Zehr said while his time in the military contributed to his disciplined ways, they started long before.

"It's the way it was growing up for me," Zehr said. "I had great parents who taught me how to act and to do the right thing. And that carried over to high school with (longtime Deer Creek-Mackinaw) coach McDonald. It's really all I've known."

After graduating from Deer Creek-Mackinaw in 2002 -- spurred by the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks -- Zehr joined the Army and served as a light infantryman in Afghanistan. But while serving, Zehr shattered his ankle, ending his military career.

Zehr said he wasn't sure what he wanted to do when he returned home. He was contacted by McDonald, who asked him if he wanted to be a volunteer coach. By that spring, Zehr was enrolled at Illinois State University with the goal of becoming a teacher and coach.

"I got out of the Army at the end of August, joined the (coaching) staff and I immediately fell in love with it," Zehr said.

You have free articles remaining.

Become a Member

Zehr was a Dee-Mac football assistant for four seasons and also helped coach the baseball team for three years. After college, he got a teaching job at Dunlap and was an assistant football coach there for four years before landing the head coaching job at Arcola.

"That was a professional goal of mine -- to be a head coach," Zehr said. "At that point I felt like I was ready to take over my own program. I grew up in a small town and so did my wife, and I really like the small school community and culture. I also knew Arcola had a great tradition -- it's a place that cares about football."

While Zehr's first season didn't go well, he was able to establish his coaching style with Arcola's talented group of sophomores.

"He came in with that discipline right way -- some of his training was even kind of military-oriented," Fishel said. "I really respected that. Some first-year coaches would come in and just try to get the guys to like him. But that's not what he did. He's a pretty easy guy to get along with, but if you didn't like him, that was tough -- you were still going to do it his way.

"And that actually turned out to be a good fit. We're a bunch of small-town kids who go to church and do what they're supposed to do."

Since that 3-6 season, Arcola is 24-1. It's one thing to have a disciplined style, it's another for the players to respond to it. While Zehr may employ some military techniques, he's no drill instructor.

"I think there's a way to discipline without yelling at and being mean to kids," Zehr said. "There's a way to do it that makes them excited -- that makes them want to do the right thing instead of being afraid to do the wrong thing."

Get News Alerts delivered directly to you.

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Load comments