Domeward Bound

road-dome3One of the hard facts of football is that only a few teams get to say they won their last game of the year. And losing that last game is difficult. Especially for a good team like Earlham that had every reason to believe that they could win their first round playoff game. They fell 37-6 to Bishop Garrigan in Algona. For the seniors, the final loss means they’ll probably never play organized football again. For everybody else, they’ll get another shot – but that won’t be for another nine months. Losing stings.

Earlham’s season was filled with interesting contrasts. Their four losses came at the hands of teams with a current combined record of 39-1. The two Class A teams that beat them are perennially good parochial schools that currently sit at numbers 1 and 2 in the BCMoore rankings. (St. Albert and Bishop Garrigan.) Their other two losses came at the hands of two rugged 1A teams that are still in the playoffs. (Van Meter and Madrid.)

Their six wins consisted of one forfeit (they would have won!) and five wins on the field by an average margin of 40 points. So there weren’t any tweener games for these guys. Some valuable seniors and good leaders will be graduating, but they’ll return a solid, experienced group that will be primed to make a deeper playoff run next season.

There’s no place like Dome

A trip to the UNI-Dome is on the line Friday for the teams remaining in the playoffs and all the matchups are fantastic. A few that look especially intriguing to me:

1A – Madrid at Van Meter: This is a re-match of a Week 9 gem. The Bulldogs had only allowed one touchdown all season until the Tigers scored three against them that night, but Van Meter prevailed 31-24. They “held” halfback Michael Santi to 183 yards, and they’ll have to keep him from running completely wild again. Van Meter’s passing attack is very good, and they have a stud running back (Carson Rhodes) of their own.

2A – Union, La Porte City at North Fayette Valley: Another rematch. NFV thumped the Knights 56-21 in week 8. The TigerHawks rushed for over 400 yards that night so the Knights defense will have to do better than that. The Knights have a good passing game and they’ll have to sling it to win this one on the road. Crazy prediction: NFV won’t pass much. I tend to be neutral in games when my home town team isn’t playing, but North Fayette holds a special place in my heart!

3A – Pella at Solon: These teams have more hardware than True Value – Pella is two-time defending champion and Solon won four titles in a row from 2007-10. That seems like a long time ago for the Spartans, but they are back knocking on the Dome’s door after a couple of “down” years. Two of the best coaches in the state, Solon’s Kevin Miller and Pella’s Jay McKinstrey, will match wits in this one.

MISC

There are 16 undefeated teams left in the playoffs.

About 20 percent (9 of 48) of the teams remaining in the playoffs across the six classes are parochial schools. By my count, there are 23 parochial schools in the state with football programs, and 10 of those made the playoffs – and that’s with a few perennial playoff teams NOT making it this season. A tendency of public school parents and fans is to hate on the parochial schools, but I’m not in that camp. 

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“Bye” Week

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Earlham has already chalked up their fourth win of the season thanks to Griswold announcing they would have to forfeit this Friday’s scheduled game. Citing “not enough players,” Griswold will drop to 3-2 in district play and is most likely eliminated from the playoffs. Student-athlete safety and well-being has to be the top priority, but the cancellation is particularly a shame because Friday was supposed to be Earlham’s homecoming.

This reminded me of a story from my travels across Iowa researching my book in 2010. The Meskwaki Warriors entered their eight-man opener with just 11 players dressed. When they lost their quarterback and star player early in the second half to an ankle injury, they were in deeper trouble – and it led to an amusing (to me, anyway!) quote from their coach:

So it was a matter of survival in the second half for Meskwaki. Without YoungBear, the Warrior offense struggled badly and their defense continued to be gashed for big plays. Cramping started to be a problem in the first half and became almost epidemic in the second half, making it difficult for Coach Dale to even have enough guys to play. At one point during a timeout, he looked around and saw two of his players being stretched out by coaches and teammates due to cramps and said, “Two guys down! If you’re not down, you’re in!”

warriorsThere’s no way to put a positive spin on anybody’s homecoming game being cancelled, but some glimmer of a bright side for Earlham is that a week off might give the team a chance to heal up a little and refresh for the stretch run. But…I think they’d rather be playing tomorrow.

Metrics

I’m no mathematician, but I do like the BCMoore Iowa high school football rankings. Polls and rankings by the newspapers are interesting and most people compiling them pay a lot of attention to football and are good judges of talent. But the BCMoore rankings are  strictly statistical – no bias can creep in.Teams are ranked according to various statistical categories, and the system uses cool terms like standard regression and pre-regression data set. I’ve always been kind of a stat geek, so I’ve been spending some time checking out this site, and have found a few interesting items:

Earlham is judged as having the 4th toughest schedule in Class A. Many teams in their district are ranked quite low, so their schedule strength is due to playing Madrid and Van Meter (ranked 6th and 7th respectively in 1A) in their non-conference games, and St.Albert’s, Council Bluffs (ranked 1st in A).

Speaking of Madrid and Van Meter, both teams are undefeated and headed for a collision course in Week 9 in Madrid where they will most likely play for the district title. Their various statistics are strikingly similar. In points scored, Madrid is second while Van Meter is third, and in points allowed Madrid is ninth and Van Meter is first – having not allowed an opposing score all season.

District 4 in Class 2A is quite top heavy. Union, Laporte City, North Fayette Valley and Waukon are all 4-0 in district play and are ranked by BCMoore as 2nd, 3rd and 6th in the state respectively. Even the teams in 4th and 5th place in the district race – Cascade, Western Dubuque and Beckman Catholic – are ranked fairly high at 16th and 19th. There are no easy outs in that neck of the woods!

My inability to deal effectively with numbers is one reason why I am a writer, but the BCMoore numbers are fun – and there is never a test. Check it out.

BIG

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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.)

 

 

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.

 

Old Rivals

The Fields of Fall, Todd WeberThe first couple weeks of the high school football season in Iowa are loaded with interesting matchups. Teams either make the playoffs or not based on their district records, but this year these non-district games could be used as tiebreakers in the new playoff format.

But that’s not the only reason teams have to get motivated for early season games. Old rivals will be hooking up – and nobody will be thinking of these contests as pre-season.

The cities of Emmetsburg and Spencer are only 25 miles apart, and these neighbors first played football in 1913. Neither is fond of losing to the other. Back in the heyday of the series, it was not uncommon for the game to draw 3,000 fans in Emmetsburg, many of which would start showing up as early as 2:00 p.m. to get good parking spots on the roads with views into the stadium.

Friday’s game is in Spencer. Emmetsburg, winners of nine state titles, has a roster full of upperclassmen and will be trying to shake off three straight mediocre seasons – and three straight losses to the Tigers. Next week the E-Hawks play Estherville, a rival they first played in 1910.

Grundy Center will be playing Gladbrook-Reinbeck Friday – for the 98th consecutive year. For those of you that are bad at math like me, that dates back to 1919. Gladbrook-Reinbeck are the defending Class A state champions, while Grundy Center is a team on the rise that features senior Bryce Flater, who led Class A in rushing last season with 2,103 yards – including 199 in a week 8 loss to the Rebels.

One of my favorite matchups this week is North Fayette at Decorah. Despite being just 35 miles apart, these two storied powerhouses with similar philosophies don’t have a long history with each other – but they’ve played some entertaining games recently. Plus, I have a history with both programs that keeps them both near and dear to my heart! Read more about that here.

I’ll be in Van Meter where my hometown Earlham Cardinals will be taking on the Bulldogs. Using the word bitter to describe the rivalry between Earlham and Van Meter might a stretch, but it can get a little edgy. Earlham folks are (generally) friendly with Van Meter people; parents of kids from both schools (occasionally) socialize with each other (out of season); and both towns are clean, comfortable places to live. (Earlham’s convenience store is nicer.) But separated by just 12 miles and with a long history of hard-fought athletic contests between us, things can get weird on game days —no matter if it’s varsity football or an old-folks’ shuffleboard tournament. I know because I’ve been involved in a few (minor) youth sports dustups in the past. (Instigated by them, of course.) For both sides, losing to one another feels like an acid bath.

Hopefully any weirdness will be at a minimum Friday, because the football should be stellar. Van Meter went to the Dome last year in 1A and lost a tight game in the semis to Western Christian.  They graduated some key seniors from that team, but have some good athletes that will step up. Earlham has been trending upward the last few seasons and is led be a solid, experienced group of upperclassmen. And for Class A, they have some BIG boys. (As long as the IHSAA doesn’t start classifying bacon as a PED, it should be a good season for the Cards.)

(For more great Iowa high school football stories, click here to order my book – The Fields of Fall.)

 

 

 

The Football Investment

Good times bad timesIn the next two days, everybody on the 12 Iowa high school football teams playing for championships is about to play the biggest game of their young lives. For 99 percent of those participating, it will be the biggest game they will ever play in. Everything they have worked for athletically for months – and even years – will come down to four more quarters.

After the game – after all the physical and emotional energy has been expended – there will be a release of emotions unlike they have ever felt before. One team and one fan base will feel the highest of highs and the other side will feel the lowest lows.

I was down on the field for all of the finals in 2010, and several since then, and couldn’t help but get caught up in the emotion every time. I did have connections with the teams I was following, but even after the games that involved other teams, the conflicting waves of joy and sadness inside the UNI-Dome were overwhelming.

I was at one of the Earlham playoff games this season with Kristen and near the end I said something about how hard it is on the kids to lose at this point in the season.

She asked me, “Do guys cry when they lose?”

I quickly reminded her how wet my shoulder got when I was hugging her after her team lost the softball title game two years ago.

“Well, yeah, but guys?”

I told her yes, guys have feelings, too. We just don’t generally like anyone to know it.

Madrid lost a championship in 2010 in one of the most compelling, gut wrenching games I have ever seen. This is what I wrote then:

Seeing uncontrollable tears flowing from several individuals on a team defined by its toughness and that had been so physically dominant all season may have seemed strange to some, but it served as a reminder that these are just kids playing a powerfully emotive game. These young men who play high school football are asked to give much of themselves and get nothing in return but the joy of playing. And in cases like this when all the joy has been sucked out of it, all that’s left is raw pain.

And Tiger Coach Randy Hinkel told me later:

“One thing I try to remind people is that when you invest a lot into something and it fails, it hurts more than if you didn’t. But these kids—and not necessarily our kids, but across the gamut—when they don’t achieve and they threw everything into it, it hurts. You see more emotion out of the kids that have invested the most.”

Yes. The game of football is a huge investment, and it hurts to lose. And it’s okay to let it out. As bad as losing feels, winning feels that good. It’s just much more fun to let those emotions loose.

Good luck to all the teams. To the winners – enjoy the moment. To the others – it’s okay to feel bad for a while. Then get back to work.

Getting What You Deserve

weightsWhile speaking about his football team at Earlham High School’s fall sports banquet last Sunday, Head Coach Chris Caskey stated very matter-of-factly that “we’re getting what we deserve.” After finishing third in their district, his team had won a first round playoff game the previous week and was getting set to play a team that was 10-0 the next night. His statement wasn’t self-congratulatory or boastful in any way. Just reality. All the off-season work by the players in the weight room was paying off. The team was reaping the rewards of good attitudes, solid practice habits, and the willingness to do what it takes to improve. Seniors and veterans were setting a good example and leading by doing while the underclassmen were not afraid to follow in their footsteps. Big moments in games were not intimidating. Everything was coming together at the right time. And they were getting what they deserved – and earned.

When they beat a previously undefeated team by two touchdowns on their home field in the rain on Monday, they also got a birth in round three of the state playoffs, one step away from playing in the semifinals at the UNI-Dome.

There are 47 other teams still playing high school football in Iowa that have similar scripts. None of the teams have gotten this far by being lucky or on “looks” alone – they have gotten what they deserve. They have done the work necessary and have played hard and smart. There are “underdogs” like Earlham and teams with gleaming undefeated records and an aura of invincibility, but they have all had to overcome difficulties and challenges along the way to get here. With grit and determination, star quarterbacks and special teams players alike have battled and defeated opponents and the elements; doubters and naysayers; pain and injury; fear and uncertainty. While they have been winning games together, the players have formed friendships and bonds that have strengthened their souls as well as their team. They are confident that no one can beat them now, but not too cocky. And they are having the time of their young lives – which is great, because they deserve it.

There are plenty of deserving teams whose season is over. Maybe they couldn’t out-work a lack of talent and depth or too many injuries; or maybe they could have dug down a little deeper and gotten more out of themselves. That’s left for them to consider and their coaches to contemplate. But that’s just how the world works – this isn’t six-and-under soccer anymore and not everybody gets a participation ribbon. Sometimes you fail to hit your goals and fall short of expectations, but you pick yourself up and keep trying. (And there are plenty of teams out there that finished with miserable records and they also got what they deserved this season. Enough said.)

But only six teams will be left standing a couple weeks from now in Cedar Falls, and they will each have gotten what they deserved.

The Fields of Fall