There are no small football games, of course, but some end up bigger than others. When your team plays its rival or when they play an undefeated team – the games count as just one win or one loss – but they just seem bigger.  Before any season I will scan my favorite teams’ (Packers, Earlham Cardinals) schedules and quickly make predictions on each game, either as a win – or a definite maybe (I don’t ever concede a loss). Those maybes tend to be the big games – the games that end up being crucial in deciding how a season goes. Again, they are just one win or loss – but emotionally they can swing a season one way or the other.

Of course all those fan predictions are on paper. Coaches definitely study the schedules and have a feeling of how good or bad their opponents are, but they deal with flesh and blood – not paper – and they can’t afford to treat one game much differently than any other.  Looking past an opponent and ahead to a big game risks an L that you really shouldn’t have had.

“It’s something you worry about,” Aplington/Parkersburg coach Alex Pollock once told me going into a game with a team they should beat  the week before playing their long-time rival.  “If we don’t play well (this week) and they do, we’re going to get beat. We’ll worry about next week when that comes. But I’m sure it’s in the back of a lot of players’ minds. They know who we’re playing next week.”

For my home town Earlham Cardinals, last Friday’s game was a week before a big game.  As a fan, I expected our boys to quickly roll up the score on Martensdale/St. Marys. They didn’t. I didn’t notice any lack of emotion or concentration that might indicate the Cardinals were looking past the Blue Devils – sometimes you just have to give credit to the other team. They were doing a nice job of defending Earlham’s effective ground game (currently ranked 8th in Class A in total yards) and they hung tough in the first half. But Earlham didn’t panic, got their offense going, and eventually wore their opponent down, finally prevailing 45-14.

Which sets up that big game for the Cardinals – probably one of the bigger regular season games they’ve played in a few years – with St. Albert of Council Bluffs. The Falcons bring an impressive resume (they’ve played in seven state championship games all time and have won four of those) to Earlham this week and are currently number 2 in the BCMoore rankings. Earlham is ranked 14th. Both teams are 2-0 in district play, and while it’s only the middle of the season, this game will probably decide who will be the district champion.

Big games like this are why it’s fun to be a high school athlete. (And a fan.)



Gridiron Gentlemen

gentleman-helmetFootball is hardly a gentlemanly game.  Only one or two of the 22 players on the field get to throw or run with the ball on any given play, so the job description of everyone else is basically to knock someone from the other team on his butt. Let’s face it – it’s difficult to be courteous and violent at the same time. But of course players must get their jobs done within the rules of the game and within the spirit of fair play. Despite the inherent ferocity of the game, sportsmanship must prevail.

Boys will be boys, though, and tempers will flare and lines of nastiness will get crossed. At the game I attended last Friday, I saw a few indiscretions – one of which ended up with an ejection of a player. I officiated for several years and got to see some of this up close. Sometimes I got too close and didn’t see it. I was working on the visitors’ sideline one night and ran toward the middle of the field to mark the ball after the ball carrier was tackled – and every coach (and some players) starting barking at me. As an official, you kind of get used to people disagreeing with your calls and non-calls, but when everybody erupts all at once, you kind of get the feeling that you missed something. The head coach came up to me as I came back to the sideline. We were on a first name basis because we had a nice chat before the game, but now he wasn’t in as good a mood. He said something like, “Now, Todd. We can’t have that sort of thing.” I had to admit that I didn’t know what the thing was. “Coach, I didn’t see anything. What happened?” He explained that a defensive player had done a throat-slash jester over his ball carrier after the tackle. Not an earth-shattering foul, but certainly a non-gentlemanly act, and worthy of a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. I had no reason to disbelieve the coach, and I felt bad. I hate that stuff and would have been happy to zing a flag right off the kid’s helmet. I told him, “Coach, I missed it,” and the next play started. I had to laugh when he said good-naturedly, “Well, if you miss anything else, I’ll be sure to tell you.” There was no more tomfoolery that night, and I would say that during my time as an official, the overall on-field behavior of most coaches and players was exemplary.

Turning boys into young men is what Iowa high school football does best. We don’t send a lot of players to the pros or even to play at Division I universities. But most coaches in our state do succeed at producing solid citizens – and yes, gentleman – through the discipline, sacrifice, and teamwork required to play football.

When I was researching my book, Mark Hubbard, head coach at Waverly-Shell Rock, told me, “We might go 0-9 this fall. I don’t have any idea—I sure hope we don’t.  But in case we do, we dang well better do the best we can to help them be better students, athletes, and gentlemen. We tell the parents the first day—we cannot guarantee victories. We never will. But if your kid hangs out in our program for four years, we’re going to guarantee you, Mom and Dad, you won’t be sorry that he did it.”

If you can stand watching your boy get knocked on his butt every once in a while, moms and dads, that’s not a bad deal.

Order The Fields of Fall here.

Scheduling Tough

football clip2aMost schools around the state are in 8-team districts, so when district assignments are handed out by the IHSAA every two years, that’s seven games that are automatically on everyone’s schedule. That leaves the two non-district games for each school to have a say in who they play. Schools send a short list of who they want to play to the Association. Athletic directors have generally talked ahead of time, so if Team A has listed Team B and Team C, both of those have also listed Team A. Thus, the non-district matchups are born.

There are as many different theories as to what teams to schedule for these games as there are ADs and coaches. Some want to keep geographic rivalries alive, some want to go easy, and some want to schedule tough to provide their teams a stern test or two before district play gets under way.

Two teams with a history of scheduling tough play each other this week in Iowa City; Regina and Solon. The two heavyweights separated by 11 miles have been scheduling each other for a long time and have played some epic games. In week 2 in 2010, Regina snapped Solon’s 42-game win streak. (Solon shook it off and eventually won their fourth straight state title that season. I was pretty close to that action and you can read all about that here.) The Spartans returned the favor in 2014 when they ended the Regals’ 56-game streak with an amazing 29-28 overtime win. It was the Regals’ only loss of the season en route to their fifth straight state title. Last year Regina beat the Spartans 21-13 – and won yet another state championship.

So there is more than just a little excitement around this year’s game. Solon uncharacteristically lost five games last year, but the teams that beat them had a combined winning percentage of .828. They are stacked with experienced upper classmen and are coming off an impressive 26-21 win over Mt. Vernon, who was (and still is) the Class 2A number 1 in many polls around the state.

Regina opened this season with a rare loss – to Class 3A power Cedar Rapids Xavier, 35-26. (The Saints have now beaten the Regals two years in a row after losing to them in 2014.) Regina lost a lot of starters and  firepower from last year’s team, but no doubt have re-loaded with some talented, though inexperienced, players.  I’m going to take a wild guess and say they’ll be fine this season. So – like the old saying goes – throw out the records when Solon and Regina hook up Friday.

Earlham also scheduled tough this year – with Van Meter and Madrid, two familiar conference rivals in all the other sports. (No GPS needed for anybody to get to these games.) Earlham’s district won’t be easy by any means, but the schedule will certainly seem to lighten after facing these teams – both of which are currently ranked in the top 10 in Class 1A. (The Tigers and Bulldogs face off in week 9 in Van Meter.) Van Meter handed Earlham a 41-0 loss last week, and Madrid is coming off an emotional 47-12 win over Woodward-Granger in which they rushed for 442 yards. So scheduling tough may not seem appealing for Earlham fans right now, but it will most likely pay off in the long run.

Click here for my book, The Fields of Fall.