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Cedar Rapids Jefferson targets sustained success

After two straight playoff appearances, J-Hawks set goals even higher

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CEDAR RAPIDS — The hardest work is over. Or is it?

Cedar Rapids Jefferson’s football program is respectable again. Its metamorphis is the ultimate compliment to Coach Brian Webb and his staff.

In 2015, the J-Hawks had their first winning season in 15 years (7-4). They won a playoff game for the first time since 1992, qualified for back-to-back playoffs for the first time in school history.

That’s pretty incredible stuff, especially considering where things were a short time ago. But the westside still isn’t quite the best side, and that’s the goal.

“Go one step farther,” said Webb, in his fifth season. “We want to be in the UNI-Dome, that’s our goal. I’ve been there several times as a coach. That’s our next goal, constantly moving forward. We’ve gone back-to-back playoffs for the first time in I don’t know how many years, had a winning season, all that stuff. Now it’s go back to the playoffs, win another playoff game and go to the quarterfinals.”

The J-Hawks want to sustain this sudden success and increase it.

“The coaches have come in here and given us opportunities,” said Jefferson senior lineman Matthew Culver. “With Matt Orton coming in here and giving us a strength program, Coach Webb giving us all these opportunities. Just the mindset of the players to be able to seize it and turn this program around.

“Now we want to push it, get to the playoffs again. Win the first playoff round and go from there. See how far we can get.”

Culver and his linemates seem to be a strength of the 2016 J-Hawks. Colton Kuehl, Blake Owens, Daniel Everts and Culver should give Jeff a strong offensive line.

“Experience is a huge part of it,” Everts said. “I think we’re all connected with each other. We know each other, we’re all friends. It just makes it easier to communicate throughout the line in drills and everything. You can trust who you are playing next to. We’ve talked about how last season was an amazing thing that happened. We just want to keep working off of that. Push ourselves to get back to the playoffs.”

Who will Everts and his boys up front be blocking for? Tavian Rashed is the most promiminent running back Jefferson returns, but so many important pieces like quarterback Jared Eivins, running back Mason Short and receivers Valentino Green and Manny Olutunde have graduated.

There are a ton of skill positions to fill.

“I think we’ll be all right,” Webb said. “I tell them we’re a jigsaw puzzle on the table. We’ve got speed, we’ve got talent, we’ve got size and we’ve got smarts. It’s just about putting the jigsaw puzzle together. We haven’t done that, yet. But the components are there.”

“It’s been looking really good,” Rashed said. “We’ve got a lot of pieces that we’re trying to put together. The O-line is looking really good. Just trying to get everyone to do their jobs. It was a great feeling last year to do something that hasn’t been done here in a long time at Jefferson. Just being part of a group of kids that helped get it done. It was great for our seniors because they put in so much hard work to change the program. We just want to take it even further this year.”

Two weeks into practice, Webb said he didn’t know who his starting quarterback would be. Senior Dylan Hart played a smidge last season, though junior Nolan Vawter is giving him a run.

The playoffs, of course, are half of what they used to be: 16 qualifiers instead of 32. But that doesn’t mean Jefferson feels it’ll be an outsider.

They expect to compete. They expect to take the next step.

“People don’t take Jefferson as a joke anymore,” Evert said. “Me and my teammates get to feel what it’s like to win.”

“There were many times where there was a fork in the road, and we could have gone right or left, but we continued to stay the course with what we were doing, what we believed in,” Webb said. “Being around guys like Gary Swenson, Tom Wilson and Pat Mitchell, all those guys were successful but had different styles. It was all about finding out what works for Jefferson High School and the needs of some of our kids, who don’t have transportation, don’t have cleats, don’t have those things. So how do we connect the dots ... The things that have happened over these four years, there is no coaching class, no coaching book, no concrete answers on the things that came about. You had to stick with it, do the things you believed were right.”

CEDAR RAPIDS JEFFERSON AT A GLANCE

• Coach: Brian Webb (5th season, 13-35 record)

• Last year: 7-4, lost to Cedar Rapids Washington in second round of Class 4A playoffs

• Top returning letterwinners: RB-LB Tavian Rashed, L Colton Kuehl, L Daniel Everts, L Matthew Culver, L Blake Owens, QB-LB Dylan Hart, NG Tyler Unkel, DL Kennen Stewart.

• Key losses: QB Jared Eivins, WR-DB Manny Olutunde, WR-LB Valentino Green, RB-DB Mason Short, WR Brock Hunt, WR Jalyn Stafford, L Alex Fernandez.

• Key to making the playoffs: Successfully replacing most of the skill-position starters. Continuing to progress as a program, as the J-Hawks won their first playoff game since 1992.

• Games to watch: The opener August 26 at home against a good Pleasant Valley team. Back-to-back encounters September 16 and 22 against public-school rivals Cedar Rapids Kennedy and Cedar Rapids Washington, in that order.

l Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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