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.
Independence nearly matc ... »
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MARION — You’ve got a returning quarterback, you’ve got a chance. Not sure anyone has ever really said that, but it does make sense.
Linn-Mar has Reese Phillips back, and the Lions appear to have a chance at being a pretty good football team.
The senior signal caller threw for about 1,600 yards last season and 13 touchdowns. Five of those came in one game against Clinton, which set a school record.
Phillips also rushed for about 200 yards and three more scores, earning first-team all-district and all-Metro honors. With a year under his belt, look for the 6-foot, 180-pounder to improve all of his stats in 2016.
His team, too.
“Reese is the gunslinger, man,” said Linn-Mar’s Josh Gassmann. “He makes big plays. He goes out there and puts his heart on the line for this team. I wouldn’t want anyone else at quarterback for us.”
“I thought it was an all right season last season,” Phillips said. “There definitely were times I could have done things better as a quarterback and as a leader. This year, I think it will be a little bit different. I got my feet wet a little bit last year, so I think I’ve got things under me now.”
Linn-Mar Coach Bob Forsyth said his quarterback has a little bit of Brett Favre in him.
“I’d call him a sandlot type of quarterback,” Forsyth said. “He wants to make plays.”
“I guess I’m not like the typical sit-in-the-pocket-and-throw it quarterback,” Phillips acknowledged. “I don’t know, I guess I try and make something out of nothing.”
Linn-Mar limped to a 4-6 record last season, losing in the first round of the Class 4A playoffs to Iowa City High. But Phillips is one of 22 seniors on the roster, with another handful of juniors back who played varsity as sophomores.
That is a lot of experience.
“They are motivated kids, fun kids to be around,” Forsyth said. “Anytime you have returning guys, you feel like you’ve got a little edge. But that’s all it is, a little edge. We’ve still got a long ways to go, like everybody does. But I like the way this group is working, like the way they’re coming together, like the way they feel about each other.”
The seniors were 8-1 as sophomores, so they know how to win. Linn-Mar should be able to put up points this season, with guys like Phillips, running backs Brennan McGaffe and Neme Siaway, and receivers Kirby Kerr and Gassmann.
No shortage of good skill guys here.
Linn-Mar must get better defensively, however, to have a bounce-back season and get into the now-shortened Class 4A playing field. It’s 16 qualifiers per class instead of 32.
“We’ve worked hard at trying to come together as a team, the juniors and seniors,” Gassmann said. “We’re returning a lot of seniors from last year’s team ... then we’ve got some juniors to try and fill in holes. You know, we’re looking for a big season. We’ve got a tough schedule, but there are a lot of opportunities for us to make some statements.”
That starts with the season opener against a good Pleasant Valley team. A win would be the perfect tonic for a tumultuous off-season that saw Forsyth, assistant coach Matt Casebolt and retired athletics director Scott Mehmens the subject of school and state investigations into alleged verbal and physical abuse of players.
It must be stressed all three individuals were cleared of any wrongdoing through multiple investigations. Forsyth would not comment publicly on the situation, which began because of complaints by a small group of parents.
“We are just staying together as a team through everything that has gone on,” Gassmann said. “I think it only has made us closer. With all the stuff going on out there, we have our safe place here at the field and in the team room with each other ... There were some bad times for us, a lot of questions going on. But we’ve got to control what we can control.”
“It was hard,” Phillips said. “I’m really close to Coach Casebolt and love him a lot. I’m behind him 100 percent, no matter what. We’re all getting through it. We’re doing it together. We’re expecting a big season. I don’t think really anyone else is expecting anything out of us, but we’ve got a lot of guys returning, got a lot of experience coming back. Our class, the class below us, we know how to win. We work well together, feel like we’ve come together well in camp and the first week in practice.”
• Coach: Bob Forsyth (9th season, 52-29 record)
• Last year: 4-6
• Top returning letterwinners: QB Reese Phillips, WR Kirby Kerr, RB-DB Neme Siaway, WR-DB Joshua Strauss, WR-DB Josh Gassmann, RB Brennan McGaffe, OL Riley Higgins, OL Ben Diestler, DB Cevan Walton, DL Jace Myers, LB Alex Streicher, K Austin Cochrane.
• Key losses: WR Daniel Gorsich, LB Logan Hagmeier, L Samuel Bries, L Dallas McFarland, K Alexy Boehm. WR-LB Mark Trautman, LB Shea Hartzler.
• Key to making the playoffs: Tightening things up defensively, as the Lions allowed 25 points per game last season. Surviving a tough non-district slate of Cedar Rapids Xavier, Cedar Rapids Jefferson, Iowa City High and Cedar Rapids Washington. Forgetting off-season distractions.
• Games to watch: The opener Aug. 26 at Iowa City High, which beat Linn-Mar in the first round of last season’s playoffs. The district opener Sept. 23 at Ottumwa is huge, as is the following week’s game against Cedar Rapids Kennedy at home.
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