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.)

 

 

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.

 

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.)

 

 

 

Season of Change in Madrid

Madrid TigersIt’s hardly business as usual in Madrid as football season gets underway. There’s no way to ignore the void that exists with the passing of legendary coach Randy Hinkel last December. But there are still nine games on the schedule and a bunch of boys in orange and black that are eager for their turn in the tradition that is Tiger football.

“We have to move on, as hard as that is,” says new head coach Steve Perkins. “Randy was one of my best friends. It was hard for me. It was a loss of a friend. Our families were extremely close. But the team has to have someone to take them to the next step and move forward.”  

Perkins is prepared for that immense job. Coach Hinkel told me several years ago when Perkins was his defensive coordinator that he hoped he didn’t lose him to another school – that he would be a heck of a head coach some day and that his chance would be coming soon. Fate has delivered Perkins to this point in time with the Tigers. Having coached alongside Hinkel, he understands the expectations that come with the job and knows that winning isn’t the only thing that defines football in Madrid. 

“I’ve talked to the kids about the principles that we have in the program – everything that we have worked on and worked for. We’re going to continue that,” says Perkins. “You remember those principles and teachable moments that Coach Hinkel had – those are going to be the same things that we are going to use heading forward. We always use to talk about attitude, effort, and discipline and instilling those into the kids. I try to elevate kids’ level of play and instill confidence and pride and get the job done. We’re going to go out and have fun and compete to win football games and make them better people in life. Those are the main things that I’m focused on.” 

Perkins will switch over from the defensive side to run the offense, but don’t look for him to ditch the old Madrid playbook. Opponents will still have to deal with a rushing attack that is equal parts brute force, speed, and magic act, and one that routinely rolls up more yardage than a John Deere tractor. 

“I’m running the offense,” he says. “It’s a system I’ve been around for years. It’s what I know. I grew up in Britt. They’re a running team up there, too. That’s just the style of football I enjoy and pride myself on. And our kids do too.” 

Randy Hinkel had a coaching record of 314-80, but the impact that he had on his players, friends and the community can’t be measured in how many football games his teams won. That impact will be felt this season – and well beyond. 

“I’ve told the kids that the best way to honor coach Hinkel is to play hard, play fast, be physical, be disciplined, know your role,” says Perkins. “Build off the tradition of success that he has established and move forward into the future. The ultimate way to honor him is through your play and how you play.”

I’m thinking that Coach Hinkel would be okay with that.