Musings from the sports desk: The definitive pre-season football column and everything in between
Can the Rams make the 'leap?'
By BRANDON HURLEY
Hear me out. There’s a reason for optimism within the Greene County football program.
Despite a 2-16 combined record the last two years and just a single home win during that span, including a winless home stand in 2017, the Rams are trending upward. This week’s column is a lengthy one, but if you stick with me, I promise you’ll discover several useful nuggets along the way.
Glance at the schedule, the district pairings and the re-classification and there is a bright beam of light at the end of the tunnel. Add in the fact the second year of the Mitch Moore scheme is well underway along with a bevy of returning starters on both sides of the ball and you’ve got a winning recipe.
And if we know anything, history tends to repeat itself. That history I’m referencing takes us back to the year 2006, to the Bill Kibby-led Jefferson-Scranton/Paton-Churdan Rams.
That was the last time a Jefferson-based team dropped down to 2A, and they ran off a perfect regular season record, reaching the state semifinals.
The Rams finished the year with an 11-1 record. Some of the notable players from that magical fall included: Kolton Reed (LB), Neil Weiss (DB), Gordon McIlrath, Marty Ball (RB) and Travis Forkner (LB). I’m not exactly saying this year’s team will run the table and make the Dome, but I’m also not saying it isn’t as wacky an idea as it sounds.
As we dig deeper into Greene County’s 2018 schedule, there are a number of parallels to 2006 outside of the drop in class: Red Oak, Kuemper and Shenandoah were members of J-S’ district that year, and are once again in the Rams’ grouping for the next two years.
Allow me to pump the brakes just a tad before I fill everyone’s heads with images of trophies and records – Greene County has not put together a winning season in seven years, back when they went 6-4 in 2011. Since that fall, the Rams have not won more than five games in a season (just once) while struggling to climb over the four win mark. The program needs a stroke of good fortune, and this may very well be the year.
Without further adieu, let’s look ahead to this year’s team, schedule and predictions. A full season preview, with quotes and pictures, is in the Aug. 23 Jefferson Herald.
• In a significant jump from previous two years, I predict Greene County will go 5-4 this fall, and I so badly wanted to put them at 6-3. That’s still a four-win improvement and a winning record. I spot a number of factors that will determine just how much the Rams can improve. Allow me to enlighten you.
Most importantly, the Greene County coaching staff begins year two at the helm. With many programs throughout the country – both in high school and college – the second season is when the most visible progress takes shape. Head coach Mitch Moore and his staff were tasked with taking over a 1-8 team in year one, up against one of the toughest schedules in the state. That experience alone, battling some of 3A’s toughest competition, will do wonders as far as experience goes, for the players and the coaches. Moore and company now have more than 12 months under their belts – in fact, it was Moore’s first year as a head coach (which is a hurdle in itself) – so they should have a grasp on what works and what doesn’t. Sprinkle in the fact the Rams have endured an entire year’s worth of high-level strength and conditioning and you’re sure to see some improvements on the field.
• The 2018 headliner is of course offensive tackle, Tyler Miller. The junior picked up five Division I scholarship offers in the offseason and is currently listed as a three star recruit by 24/7 Sports, the fourth-ranked athlete in Iowa’s 2020 class.
Greene County will also trot out one of the state’s top receivers in their first year back in Class 2A. Senior wideout Trey Hinote enters the fall season with the third most returning receptions, hauling in 44 passes in 2017 along with the fifth most returning receiving yards at 569. In fact, the Greene County receiving corps as a whole should be solid, as they return three guys with at least 20 receptions and four with at least 15 catches.
Shifty tailback Colby Kafer broke the single-game school rushing record last fall and returns for his junior year. The secondary should be strong with the likes of Austin Delp, Xavier Hayes and Will Hansen while Nick Breon slides into the middle linebacker role.
• Greene County’s non-district schedule is favorable but certainly no cake walk. With just a six member district for the next two years, the Rams will have four non-district games each season. They’ll kick the 2018 campaign off Aug. 24 in Perry.
Having one of Iowa’s longest-running rivalries – the Cowbell Game – on opening night can be a blessing or a curse. The Bluejays (4-5 in 2017) are a 3A school, but the Rams won’t be fazed, in search of revenge after dropping an overtime thriller in Perry last fall.
PHS must replace their quarterback, top four running backs, and top two receivers, as well as three of their top four tacklers. I can see Greene County winning this one, but certainly not by a wide margin. But, in the end, I have the Rams taking it for their first 1-0 start since 2015.
The Rams then host Nevada (5-4) the following week in their home-opener. The Cubs must replace their quarterback (Cam Shill) and two of their top three running backs (Trent Stahl and Brendan Sellberg), who combined for 10 touchdowns and more than 900 yards on the ground, as well as their top four receivers. The defense will be hurting as well, as Nevada graduated five of their top seven tacklers from a season ago. I could also see the Rams winning this game, but I’ll give Nevada the edge, taking advantage of Greene County’s rivalry hangover, despite the home-opener, dropping them to 1-1 overall.
The Rams hit the road again in week three to take on a reeling Saydel squad (4-5), as they finished 2017 on a four-game losing streak, falling by an average of 38.5 points per game.
The Eagles must replace all their offensive skill players (QB, RB, WR) as well as three of their four leading tacklers. I’ll give Greene County a big edge in Des Moines for win number two.
At Gilbert (2-7) in week three is a tricky one. The final non-district game is on the road, which should give way to a completely different situation than last fall. The 2017 game-time was moved up to try and beat a storm, then the stadium was later evacuated in the second half, as the two squads finished the game in front of a mere 30 or so fans. The Tigers do return their quarterback and their top two receivers, Landon Howard and Keegan Sturdy, who combined for 12 touchdowns and more than 1,000 yards. I see Gilbert winning this one, just for the fact they may have a bit more depth and have home field advantage. The loss will leave Greene County at 2-2 overall entering district play, a big improvement from years past.
• As the Rams start 2A, District 9 play in week five, they’ll endure a month-long slugfest with a a group of schools in flux. The district title truly is up for grabs, with no one team head and shoulders above their counter parts.
The Rams host Shenandoah (2-7 in 2017) at home for the district-opener Sept. 21. The southwest Iowa squad graduated their top quarterback as well as a 1,000 yard rusher in addition to their top producing wide receiver and their top four tacklers. I honestly see this as an emphatic win for the Rams to get district play off to a scorching hot start.
The following week, Greene County hits the road to take on notorious power, Kuemper Catholic. The Knights must replace their all-state running back, Miles Rupiper, as well as two dynamite receivers in Parker Badding and Carter Irlbeck, in addition to their starting quarterback. Seven of their top nine leading tacklers are gone as well. If there ever was a year for Greene County to get a win over Kuemper, this is it. They’ll battle Kuemper in Carroll, Sept. 28 in week six. I see the Rams finally taking that game after a close failure last year and an embarrassment in 2016.
After six weeks, Greene County will sit at 4-2 overall, riding a two-game win streak with a firm grip on the district lead, returning home to take on Atlantic (5-4 in 2017).
Though they spent the last few years in 3A like Greene County, the Trojans must replace their quarterback, top running back and five of their top seven tacklers. AHS does return their top two receivers, who combined for 66 receptions, more than 900 yards and eight touchdowns.
This is probably the biggest toss up game district wise, for the simple fact that Atlantic is a traditionally strong program. Being that it is at home and Greene County will be coming off a huge rivalry win over Kuemper, I can see them winning this, but I give Atlantic the edge. The loss will knock the Rams from the district unbeatens andd to 4-3 overall.
With likely a share of the district lead or no worse than a second place standing, the final two weeks will be never more important. I see the Rams traveling the nearly two hours southwest to Red Oak and escaping with a narrow victory.
That’s asking a lot of any young athlete to take a two-hour bus ride before a two-hour game, but Red Oak (1-8) just doesn’t have a lot going for them.
They threw just two touchdowns a year ago and barely more than 300 yards. They’ll remain a running team as Red Oak returns their top three running backs. But together, the trio produced just under 900 yards and only three touchdowns.
In fact, the Tigers were shut out twice last fall and scored in double digits just two out of their nine games. If Greene County can put a few points on the board in this one, they should ride into week 9 with a decent shot at the district title, with a 5-3, 3-1 record in tow.
The season and home finale pits the Rams against OA-BCIG (6-3 in 2017), a team moving up from Class 1A. A run-orientated unit, the Falcons were led by all-world tailback, Chase Devitt, who ran for 22 touchdowns and 1,614 yards, but he’s gone. OA-BCIG only threw the ball 114 times last fall, though they do return their starter from a year ago. The Falcons top three tacklers were lost to graduation as well, which may open some holes for Greene County.
Though it’s the season finale at home, I still give OA-BCIG the edge because of their running ability. The Rams were gashed by strong and mediocre running attacks game after game last year, and I’m afraid it may be more of the same after they lost two defensive lineman (Charlie Minnehan and Wade Adcock) as well as their two best linebackers (Jake Burns and Joe Towers).
So for those counting at home, the loss would knock Greene County to 5-4 overall and 3-2 in district play, most likely sitting them in a log jam at second place in district 9, sitting on the outside looking in.
That leads me to my next, and final part of my column – the playoffs.
• The new playoff qualification system will definitely play a role this fall as well. It’s asking a lot of a program that’s won just two games in the last two years to flip the script and capture a district title, but if Greene County wants a guaranteed spot in the playoffs, that’s what they will have to do. If the Rams don’t win their district (which they very well could), getting an at-large bid may be a bit tricky. With the new RPI system in place, the Rams first, must pile up wins, but they then rely on their strength of schedule, which isn’t the most enticing a year after playing a slate consisting of four ranked opponents. This year’s non-conference opponents compiled a measly 15-21 record last fall while the Rams’ district nine opponents didn’t fare much better. Greene County’s five district opponents were a combined 21-25 a season ago, with Kuemper leading the way at 7-3. The Knights will most likely regress while Atlantic (5-4) and OA-BCIG (6-3) were the only other teams in this year’s district with winning records. As a whole, Greene County’s nine opponents this coming year were a combined 36-46 last fall, which doesn’t bode well for the new RPI system.
As much as we’d like to anoint this THE year for the Rams, I don’t see them gaining an at-large bid. Despite that, this will be nothing short of a great fall. A four-win improvement, a winning record in district play and a .500 non-district record is a win in itself.
Buckle up, boys and girls, we are in for a wild ride this fall.
- You’ll get your first taste of the boys in red and black this Friday, Aug. 17 as they host North Polk in a scrimmage at 7 p.m. Bring the family, bring your friends, this could be a special year.