INDEPENDENCE - For Independence, the prep football season opener bore little resemblance to its winless 2016 campaign.
Even in defeat, a clear message was sent that there are brighter days ahead for the Mustangs.
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WASHINGTON — For much of the 2015 high school football season, Washington (Iowa) appeared ahead of schedule.
Armed with a sophomore-laden roster, the Demons won seven of their first eight games and looked poised to claim a district crown.
Losses to Davenport Assumption and Solon in the final two games of the season denied the Demons the district title and a second-round playoff game, which has this year’s team of 15 returning starters ready to take another step.
“Obviously a bitter taste with the way it ended, losing two games in a row at the end of the year there,” third-year Washington Coach Garrison Carter said. “Coming into this year with all the guys we have coming back, I think there are pretty high expectations both internally and externally.”
Carter’s spread offense should prove especially potent this season with five returning starters along the line — including Class 3A third team all-state senior Seth Townsend — plus a pair of difference-makers in junior dual-threat quarterback Ryan Reighard and 6-foot-3 junior receiver Jaivonn Willis.
Last season, Reighard finished fifth in 3A with 2,858 combined passing and rushing yards, was ninth in rushing yards (1,579) and also earned a spot on the all-state third team. Throughout the off-season, Reighard practiced patience in hopes of not being so quick to tuck the ball and run, and instead give his receivers extra time to get open.
“Just being more comfortable in the pocket,” the 6-foot, 190-pound Reighard said. “Just kind of knowing what I am doing better. And then if I do break out of the pocket, instead of just trying to run it, just try passing and get those few yards.”
With 54 receptions last season, Willis often served as Reighard’s first and last target in the passing game. Willis was fifth in 3A with 796 receiving yards, and his 10 touchdown receptions were tied for seventh.
“We just work together all the time on different routes,“ Willis said. “We just get along and always have that connection that everyone needs with their quarterback.”
Willis also was a first team all-state selection at defensive back for the Demons last season when he collected a team-high four interceptions.
“Jaivonn is a once-in-a-generation athlete for us,” Carter said. “Having him as a wideout really has helped us dictate defense as far as dictating coverage. He usually can win any one-on-one matchup we can throw at him. It forces the defense to make a decision if they are going to commit two defenders to him. If they do, it allows us to do a lot of other things offensively and if they don’t, we’re able to throw it to him with a lot of success.”
The Washington defense is led by senior defensive end Bryce Sinn, who tallied 41.5 tackles and three sacks last season. Sinn and the defense will be counted on to navigate a schedule that begins with 2A playoff participants Albia and Mid-Prairie before a district slate full of Southeast Conference foes, plus Oskaloosa, West Burlington-Notre Dame and Solon.
Washington defeated Solon in a non-district regular season game last season, then fell to the Spartans in the first round of the 3A playoffs.
“We have a lot of returning people, a lot of returning guys,” Sinn said. “We have more experience, more people in the weight room throughout the year so we’re just smarter and stronger.”
• Coach: Garrison Carter (3rd year, 15-7)
• Last year: 7-3 (lost to Solon, 17-14, in first round of Class 3A playoffs)
• Top returning letterwinners: QB Ryan Reighard, jr.; WR/RB Jaivonn Willis, jr.; LB Jack Redlinger, jr.; DB Trey Van Weelden, jr.; K Anthony Torres, jr.; LB Tanner Murphy, jr.; TE/DE Bryce Sinn, jr.; OL Gabe Greiner, sr.; OL Aaron Vittetoe, sr.; OL/DL Seth Townsend, sr.; OL Mitchell Huisenga, jr.; LB Karlton Skubal, sr.; OL Mark Engelken, jr.; RB/DB Bryce Craff, jr.; WR/DB Austin Hazelett, jr.; TE/LB John Dillon, jr.; TE/DL Caleb Bex, sr.
• Key losses: RB Jack Giardino, LB Ethan Hansen, LB Michael Ellingson
• Key to making the playoffs: Maneuvering through a winnable district as one of only two teams with a winning record last season (Solon).
• Games to watch: Solon, Sept. 16. The Demons and Spartans split a pair of meetings last season. Washington won the regular-season meeting by two touchdowns, then dropped a 17-14 first-round playoff game. This year’s game could decide the district title.
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