Football Preview: COMMITTED TO EXCELLENCE
By Brandon Hurley
A captivating return to the playoffs was a mere appetizer.
The mouth-watering main dish is ready to devour as the calendar heads toward fall.
One hundred and thirty five miles stand between Greene County and an elusive trip to the UNI Dome. The Rams last reached the state semifinals in 2006, a full 13 years in the past, which came as a result of the Jefferson-Scranton/Paton-Churdan concoction. Never have the Rams even won a playoff game with the consolidated Greene County moniker.
This is the year that all changes.
A large – and immensely talented – senior class and new head coach Caden Duncan hope to put an end to that drought as the 2019 season gets underway Friday.
The Rams are committed to excellence, with dreams of playoff victories and a district title as the top prize.
Duncan, a former Panorama assistant and Prairie Valley High School (Gowrie) graduate, inherits a team with lofty expectations. The first-year head coach hasn’t pulled many punches - he knows it’s boom or bust.
Duncan takes over a program that was 8-2 a year ago, 4-1 in district 9 play, the most wins in Greene County history and the most victories by a Jefferson based football squad since 2007. That momentous resulted in Greene County’s return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014. Thanks to their 45-20 loss at the hands of Benton, the Rams are itching for a bit of redemption.
Duncan replaces the departed Mitch Moore, who left for head coaching gig at Des Moines Roosevelt over the winter. Moore was 9-10 in two years with the Rams, leading the Jefferson squad to its best record in more than 10 years last fall. The young coach has some big shoes to fill but he believes he’s the one who can take Greene County into the limelight.
Duncan is already six years into his coaching career despite graduating high school in 2011. He played a bit of football at Upper Iowa University before hanging up the cleats and finishing his college degree at Iowa State. Duncan’s relative familiarity with Greene County and it’s stable of young talent drew the first-year head coach to the job.
“I really liked how the district has a new high school coming. I’m familiar with some of the some the staff here already,” Duncan said. :hat kind of drew me. And a combination of those things just kind of made it seem like it was the right time.
Looking at it roster-wise, it’s definitely not an empty cupboard situation. All those factors just made it a really good time to make the jump and I felt like I was ready.”
Duncan was an assistant at what became Southeast Valley for three years while in school before having spent the last three years with the Panorama coaching staff. He’s quickly worked his way up through the ranks before jumping at the Greene County opening. Despite his relative youth, Duncan feels he’s more than suitable as head coach.
“I’ve always been a little bit more mature for my age when it came to coaching. I was coaching when I was in college. Soon as my playing career was over, I jumped into coaching immediately. I’ve been a coordinator of every phase of the game whether it’s on offense, defense or special teams. I’ve held some leadership roles, here and there at different places, and I felt like I was ready to take the reins. I was ready to captain the ship myself.”
The confidence is quite palpable when one takes a gander through a Greene County practice. The Rams know they have a chance to do something special, it’s just a matter of execution at this point.
“(Our) expectations are really high. One of our big things is being committed to excellence,” Duncan said. “That’s kind of been our slogan for the year. We talked about it on the field and off the field. Really trying to get that to be the basis of our culture. We (have) our sights set on championship. That’s where we’re setting the bar. Anything less than that, we’re going to be disappointed.”
Brent Riley returns at quarterback for his senior campaign after tallying the fifth most passing yards in 2A last fall (2,242 yards) to go with 22 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Colby Kafer will see the bulk of the carries out of the backfield after compiling 1,433 rushing yards and 14 rushing scores in the last two years.
The senior will scamper through the earth-flattening pathways created by three-star ISU commit, Tyler Miller. The all-state senior will patrol the left tackle position for the third consecutive year as Greene County’s most heralded athlete. Miller will anchor an offensive line that hopes to provide time for a potent passing game. Riley connected with senior Carter Morton 36 times last fall for 800 yards (eighth most in 2A) and seven touchdowns. The duo should be fairly lethal yet again in their final season in Jefferson. Assistant Cole Jaeschke, a former high school teammate of Duncan’s, will once again run the offense, his third year at the helm.
Greene County tallied 48 touchdowns and 4,049 yards a year ago under Jaeschke’s tutelage, which ranked them seventh in yards and 11th in touchdowns. Much of that offense returns minus Clint Dennhardt (1,052 yards, 19 touchdowns) at running back along with Lance Hughes (five TDs) and Trey Hinote (29 receptions, two touchdowns) also gone.
Duncan, in the words of several Greene County athletes, is the complete opposite of his predecessor. He’s still the head dog, but is a little less in your face.
“He’s a lot more laid back. Coach Moore was super intense,” Kafer said. “Coach Duncan is still a good coach, he’s just more laid back.”
Kafer is just one of the many talented anchors of the 2020 senior class. It’s a group that has seen immense amounts of success from seventh grade until now. Miller garners all the state-wide publicity but Morton, Riley and Kafer form an explosive offensive trio while Miller, Nick Breon, Morton, Will Hansen, Joe Patterson and Xavier Hayes anchor a hungry defense. That’s quite an experienced group to fall back on. They’ve grown closer as the years have flown by while the victories piled up. This senior class is a big reason why the Rams made a seven-win jump a year ago. Sprinkle in the fact they are year two into a slide down to 2A and the class of 14 seniors is confident their strong relationships will guide them to the next level.
“We hangout outside of the football field,” Riley said. “We are always together. We have each other’s backs. We have a tight bond unlike any other class.”
Greene County’s desire to not only improve but to attain a district title is what’s impressed Duncan initially.
“There’s a lot of aggressiveness within the group. There’s not a lot of passive guys on the field,” the coach said. “Maybe they are a little more reserved off the field, but once they get between those lines, they are really, really aggressive.
We have a lot of physical players, a lot of guys who are going to take charge and get things done even though they might not be the most vocal. But once they get on the field, they are super aggressive. They are ready to take the bull by the horns.”
Thankfully, Duncan inherited a group that’s already fine tuned. All he has to do is plug in a few new philosophies and keep the guys in line while he guides the chips into their pro.
“I think we’re real solid everywhere. Up front, we (have) a lot of experienced guys. On both sides of the ball, we’re going to have an almost completely senior dominated line,” Duncan said. “We’ve also got experience in the middle and in the back end, out on the perimeter. I don’t see any major weaknesses when I look at the roster.”
The old football adage of games won in the trenches will likely become Greene County’s mantra this fall. The veteran presence on both the offensive and defensive lines should set an early tone each game, Duncan said.
“I would say our strength is (that) we’ve got some really explosive skill players on both sides of the ball,” Duncan said. “I don’t know if I could point to just one distinct area. But there (are) multiple areas where I think we could be really explosive offensively and really tough defensively.”
Despite their sheer talent, aspiring championship dreams could fizzle out fairly quickly if the Rams don’t tighten up their mistakes, Miller admitted. They’ve taken the necessary steps to correct the bone-headed slip ups.
“Leadership (is where we’ve grown most),” Miller said. “I feel like we have one of the better classes in 2A and we all took the next step in leadership and character.”
Self-inflicted penalties killed several promising drives last fall and even took away a few touchdowns. A safety with the Rams leading 10-0 in last year’s first round playoff game flipped the entire momentum as well.
“We are trying to lay back on the flags, (staying) disciplined,” Morton said. “(We are) hoping that doesn’t hurt us as much.”
Duncan is amped up for the Rams to take the field Friday night at home against the Perry Bluejays. He can feel the rising excitement as kick-off nears. Sprinkle in a loaded lineup and the coach has several reasons to be incredibly optimistic.
“We really have a great group of guys. I have a great group of assistant coaches and a super, super talented group of players,” Duncan said. “And we also have a lot of leaders. That’s been a pleasant surprise. We have a lot of guys with a lot of leadership qualities.”
Perry is currently riding a nine game losing streak, fresh off a winless 2018 campaign. The Greene County Rams hope to retain the Cowbell for the second straight year and for the fourth time in five years. The GCHS defense was on another level a year ago in their 14-6 road victory, holding Perry to just 93 total. Friday’s 7 p.m. kick-off in Jefferson begins the journey to a district title and a possible trip to the Dome.
All games this fall will start at 7 p.m. due to Greene County not suiting a freshman team.