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.


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. 



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.


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.

You Can Go Dome Again

domeI have a soft spot in my heart for all the teams I followed in 2010 when I was researching my book, and one of those teams made it back to the Dome this year. So naturally I’m pulling hard for the North Fayette Valley TigerHawks to bring home the 2A title. Take a drive through West Union or visit the school and it looks similar to a lot of Iowa towns and schools. There isn’t anything unique on the surface that might indicate the sustained excellence in football that they have achieved over the past three decades. What they have is a recipe of good people, good coaching, and a culture of winning. They expect to do well, they work hard, and they succeed. The good news for schools that have fallen short in their sports programs is that that recipe can be cooked up anywhere. The bad news is; it ain’t exactly as easy as all that. Some schools like North Fayette just make it look easy.

As big a fan as I am of theirs, it’s good to see that I am still revered in those parts, too – judging by this photo from 2010 that I found on their web site.

Go TigerHawks!

The championship dream is still alive for the 24 Iowa high school football teams that made it to the semifinals at the UNI-Dome. Action kicks off Thursday with the first 8-man matchup at the painfully early, and somewhat unusual, time of 9:06 a.m. Here are some more interesting facts about this year’s semis:

Six private schools are among the field this season. That’s down one from last year when seven made it. Last year private schools won titles in five of the six classes, but that won’t happen this year because in two classes (A and 8), only public schools remain. Two classes (3A with Heelan and Xavier; 1A with Regina and St. Edmond) have two private schools in the semis, setting up the possibility of a couple of all-Catholic school finals. (Regina and St. Ed met in the 1A final last season.)

These six private schools spend almost as much time in the Dome as the Panthers. Between them, they have been to the semifinals 14 times since 2010.

Ten of the 24 teams are back to the semis for the second year in a row, including four state champions. Two of those champs are in the same class this year so only three teams can repeat. 2013 Class A champ West Lyon was bumped up to 1A this season and could meet defending champ Regina in the final. The other two defending champions are Heelan and Dowling.

Regina is going for their fifth straight title, and even though the 1A field is rugged this year, it’s hard to bet against this juggernaut. (Betting for entertainment purposes only, of course!) Solon snapped the Regals’ gazillion game winning streak in week one, but their 2014 resume includes a 21-7 win over Xavier, class 3A semi-finalist this year and 4A runner up last year – not to mention the beatings they inflicted on their district foes. So in spite of their “down year,” Marv Cook’s guys will be tough to unseat.

Cinderella doesn’t usually make it to this dance – somebody shatters that glass slipper sooner rather than later. Among the 24, there are seven undefeated teams and 11 with only one loss.

But a couple of teams are intriguing, though they may not necessarily qualify for Cinderella status.

Newell-Fonda lost their first three games of the season and hasn’t lost since. Last Friday they upset defending 8-man champ (and owners of a 25-game win streak) Don Bosco, 37-36, to earn the trip to Cedar Falls.

With a similar script, Class A Denver lost four of their first six games and finished third in their district. They eventually upset previously unbeaten Maquoketa Valley in the second round, and then avenged a week 2 loss to district rival Nashua-Plainfield by beating them last Friday. They will be seeking revenge again in their semifinal matchup with Gladbrook-Reinbeck, who beat them 43-0 in week 4.

Good luck to all the teams – and let the games begin!

Use Your Head

helmetInevitably, high school kids will get into a little (or a lot) of trouble. A popular phrase I’ve heard thrown around a time or two is “to be old and wise you must first be young and stupid.” So true. “Experienced” folks like me were young once (some longer ago than others), and we have all been guilty of varying degrees of stupidity. The young thing wears off naturally – and hopefully most of us grow out of the stupid.

But (and this really makes me sound old), times are different from when we were in high school. There’s a lot of bad stuff out there these days, and when kids are out of school or out of the house, they have to use their heads.

I heard one of the most interesting theories about helping keep athletes out of trouble from Bob Lape, head football coach at North Fayette Valley. He told me once, “One thing I learned a long time ago — don’t do anything that’s going to embarrass your mom. That’s what I always tell the kids. I grew up with that. I tell my own kids that; I tell all the kids I coach; I even tell all the kids in school — don’t do anything that’s going to embarrass your mom. You don’t want that.”

Absolutely not. Think about that one as it applies to you, your wife or your mom. Moms don’t play.

One of the best things about high school sports is the kids are so busy practicing and playing, it limits the time they can go out and get into trouble. And the discipline and effort needed to perform well is hopefully teaching kids the right way to go about their business and they are applying that to their lives away from the athletic fields.

But kids being kids, they will find trouble or it will find them eventually.

Two schools in Iowa that deal specifically with kids in trouble are Clarinda Academy and Woodward Academy. Established in 1992, Clarinda Academy is a residential foster care facility that provides residential treatment and shelter care to at-risk and delinquent male and female youth. Woodward Academy, established in 1995, is a residential treatment facility for male youth. They are both owned by Sequel Youth and Family Services, a privately owned company that develops and operates programs around the country for people with behavioral, emotional, or physical challenges.

Sports are an important part of what both schools do to positively affect the lives of their student athletes. They have enjoyed success in many of their programs, and especially with powerlifting – which I didn’t even know was a high school sport.

Winning at football is a little tougher at both schools. Consider that most kids are only there for a short time. Depending on the specific program he is in (both schools offer similar programs), a student may only be there for 90 days, or up to 12 months. So the coaches are basically starting over with an entire roster every season. That is a little easier with the sports that require fewer players and/or a smaller playbook. But trying to get 11 guys on offense and 11 guys on defense up and running every year and having to take on some of the best teams in the state is a rugged task.

Clarinda Academy is winless this season and takes on a scrappy Earlham (4-3) team at home, while Woodward Academy is 1-6 and has the distinct “opportunity” of hosting Madrid (5-2) tonight. Both will be underdogs and, frankly, both games might end up a little lopsided, but the gains and successes made in these programs can’t truly be measured on the scoreboard.

Buy The Fields of Fall
Across the state of Iowa there are towns where high school football is less a game and more a way of life. Bigger schools certainly have their traditions, but in some of Iowa’s smaller towns, football is the heartbeat of the community; a center of activity; an object of intense passion for both the school and the community as a whole. In these football epicenters the game has been turned into an art form, young men who excel at it become local heroes, and winning is second nature—but never taken for granted.

Not only are the young men in these towns learning the game of football, they are being taught valuable life lessons that will pay dividends long after their playing days are over. By teaching their players how to work effectively as a team and the importance of dedication, sacrifice and discipline, coaches are primarily concerned with developing the character of their players—and thus winning football games becomes the result.

The Fields of Fall follows several of the best known football dynasties in Iowa—as well as some lesser known programs—for an entire year. The book is an enlightening and entertaining ride through the 2010 season; dissecting the teams’ philosophies on football, education and life in general; and telling the stories of the people and the communities that make high school football in Iowa so special. The Fields of Fall captures the emotional power of the game as it details the teams’ journeys through a season of incredible highs and corresponding lows—and describes the sheer fun that everyone surrounding the game was having.

The 300 Club

30aCoach Randy Hinkel of Madrid has been a head football coach for 34 years, so it’s not very often that he’s the “young whippersnapper” on the sidelines. But that will be the case this Friday when his Tigers take on the Gaels of St. Edmond of Fort Dodge, led by 84-year-old Dick Tighe, now in his 61st year as a head coach. Tighe has 428 coaching wins to his credit, while Hinkel has 306 – so it’s an intriguing matchup of coaches who are members of the coveted 300-win club.

Matchups of coaches who have achieved this milestone are rare, but less unusual in Iowa than in other states. Of the 113 coaches in the U.S. who had reached 300 wins by the end of last season, 11 of them are Iowa coaches. My math skills aren’t great, but even I know that that’s almost 10 percent. Not bad – and it certainly speaks to the quality of football coaching we have here. Tighe is 9th on that national coaching wins list while Hinkel is 104th. Also members of the 300 club are Jerry Pezzetti of Ankeny Centennial and Gary Swenson of West Des Moines Valley. When their teams hook up in week 8, it will be the latest in a matchup that has occurred almost annually for the past two decades.

Even with the legendary coaches calling the shots in The Jungle in Madrid on Friday, it will be the players that take center stage. Since going to the Class A title game in 2010, Madrid has had a couple of lean years by their high standards. But having been bumped up to 1A this season, the Tigers are off to a fast start with a 4-1 record.

St. Edmond’s only blemish last year was a loss in the 1A title game to Iowa City Regina. (Hardly a reason to fire the coach!) This year they have dashed out to a 5-0 record and are currently ranked third in the state.

Both teams are piling up more points than a lot of basketball teams. St. Ed is averaging almost 41 points per game while Madrid is scoring 39. And both teams are getting to the end zone in a similar manner – via the run game. Madrid’s rushing heritage is legendary, and they are living up to it this year by leading all Iowa classes with 2,095 yards. St. Edmond is second behind the Tigers in class 1A with 1,625 rushing yards. Interestingly, both teams are also together at the very bottom of the 1A passing statistics. The Gaels have attempted just 17 passes in five games; the Tigers only 12. But when your stable of running backs can average seven or eight yards a carry, why pass?

This game is also a critical District 7 matchup. When the districts were announced last winter, the coaches in this one probably cringed when they first had a look. It’s loaded with perennially good teams, and six out of the seven teams currently have overall winning records. In the current “extra round” era when mediocre to just plain bad teams can still make the playoffs, a quality team might actually get left out in this district this season. Madrid already has a district loss, so this game is especially significant to them.

Something will give when these two giants meet Friday. One defense will bend too much; there will be a critical turnover or two; an unsung kid will make the play of a lifetime. Just don’t bet on either of these coaches to screw something up.