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

bye2

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.

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