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CEDAR RAPIDS — O’Rien Vance hadn’t played a down of football in his life.
He never attended a practice or made a tackle.
His father, Johnnie Vance, approached one day before his sixth-grade year and asked if he would be interested in joining his friends on a team. The younger Vance found a perfect fit.
“I played on the Warriors travel team,” Vance said during the first day of practice. “May dad asked me if I would ever play football. I was like ‘yeah.’ Ever since then I’ve been loving it.”
Love has turned into dominance of the game for the Cedar Rapids Washington senior. The 6-foot-3, 235-pound linebacker has earned all-state honors the last two seasons and is looking to lead the Warriors one more time.
Vance’s excitement for football shines under stadium lights on Friday nights. He will extend his career, committing to play at Iowa State next year.
“He’s got a love for the game and excelling,” Washington Coach Paul James said. “He loves game nights and that’s obvious from the way he plays.”
He made an impression early in his career at Washington. James pulled him up to the varsity for a playoff game his freshman year, resulting in one assisted tackle. The breakthrough performance came Week 4 of his sophomore season in a 43-3 victory at Linn-Mar. Vance racked up a team-high 10 tackles, including eight solo, three for loss and assisted on a sack. He blocked a punt that was returned for a touchdown and recovered a fumble.
James and his coaching staff recognized the talent almost immediately.
“He made things happen when he was a freshman on the sophomore team,” James said. “It was very evident that he would make an impact on the varsity level.”
One of the reasons for his continued progress is his work to get bigger and stronger, going along with his explosiveness and agility to dominate opposing offenses. James said he has worked closely with assistant coach and linebackers coach Maurice Blue, who is in charge of off-season weight training. He has added nearly about 50 pounds since weighing in around 185 as a freshman according to James.
“He’s strong,” James said. “He’s put up some impressive numbers in the weight room.”
Vance has developed a strong rapport with Blue. The two discussed signal calls during the first practice. Vance said Blue has meant a lot to him.
“He’s been one of the most influential coaches that I’ve had,” Vance said. “Since he’s my linebacker coach, we just try and stick together.”
Opponents have had fits with Vance since he stepped on the field for his second-team all-state season in 2014. His 78 tackles were second for the Warriors, leading them with seven solo sacks and tying for the team lead with three fumble recoveries.
He earned first-team all-state honors last year, tallying 101 total tackles, which was sixth in Class 4A. His 25 tackles for loss was the best in 4A and tied for first overall in the state. He also added two interceptions last season.
“I kind of wish he would have graduated,” Cedar Rapids Kennedy Coach Brian White said. “He’s been around since he was a freshman,”
White said Vance’s versatility allows him to move around the Warriors defense, playing defensive end, outside or inside linebacker. Vance can affect the opposition’s game plan, because if you don’t identify where he is he will beat you. Spotting him is only half the battle.
“Knowing where he is and blocking the kid is something totally different,” White said. “There is a reason he’s a Division I kid. He’s one of those freakish (athletes). He brings something to the table that you have to be aware of.”
The Warriors had an exodus of skill-position players due to graduation. Vance’s offensive role will expand this season as well after playing some tight end in the past.
“We’re looking to get some help from him offensively, too, where he can touch the ball a little bit,” James said. “We may move him around a little bit, so he’s able to get a few touches.”
Vance smiled and showed approval when asked about more offensive responsibility.
“I can’t wait,” Vance said with a laugh. “It’s going to be fun.”
Vance has his opinion on something more fun than a touchdown pass or run.
“Sticking the quarterback,” Vance said. “It always goes to the defense.”
The focus is on the team, instead of individual success. He was a part of the Warriors’ state runner-up team as a sophomore. This season, he wants to produce a title for Washington.
“My goals are to get better as a player and a teammate,” Vance said. “Try and win the school a state championship.
“It’s just fun being out there, playing with your friends. Just going out and doing what you do best.”
l Coach: Paul James (15th year, 87-55)
l Last year: 10-2, lost in Class 4A state quarterfinals
l Top returning letterwinners: LB/TE O’Rien Vance, sr., FB/LB Ben Nassif, sr., OL Gerry Alt, sr., OL Peter Greubel, sr., OL Andrew Todd, jr., S/WR Drew Dostal, sr., DE Rane Weiland, jr., LB Connor Malcolm, sr., LB Ian Thomas, sr., QB Bryan Kunde, soph.
l Key losses: Johnny Dobbs, Isaiah Nimmers, Tavian Patrick, T.J. Vogel, Aries Davis, Alex Herzog, Matt Ackerman, Dallas Hobbs, Nick Nassif
l Key to making the playoffs: Replace a number of skill players. The Warriors lost their top passer, top four rushers, top receiver and top four point scorers. Washington’s offensive line and its defense will be at the heart of any early success. It will be important for the skill players to establish themselves early and hit the ground running for a strong district run against challengers like Cedar Rapids Jefferson and Cedar Falls.
l Games to watch: The non-district schedule is impressive. The attractive matchups are in Weeks 2 and 3 against last year’s state runner-up Cedar Rapids Kennedy and Bettendorf. Class 4A third-ranked Washington’s only two losses last season were to the Cougars, who return as No. 5 in our preseason rankings. The Warriors beat Bettendorf, 28-17, in their last meeting, which was the 2014 state semifinal. District foe Cedar Falls is always a tough test.
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