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Kennedy opens with tough test, hosting Muscatine

Cougars come off state runner-up finish last season

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Consider the preseason as a long cram sessions for Cedar Rapids Kennedy.

The work up until this point has been preparation for a very tough test to start the regular season.

The Class 4A fifth-ranked Cougars are come off a state runner-up finish a year ago with a top-10 non-district battle, hosting No. 8 Muscatine in the season opener Thursday night at Kingston Stadium. Action is slated to begin at 7:15.

Facing a ranked foe with most of its offensive production, including all-state running back Alphonso Soko (1,161 rush yards and 18 TDs), passer Luke Wichers (1,783 and 17 TDs) and leading receiver Drew Greenhaw (30-514, 5 TDs).

“I think it’s a chance to see where we stack up with some returning talent in the state,” Kennedy Coach Brian White said. “It’s unknown.

“It’s a great opportunity to see where we are at and where we need to improve to get to the place we want to be at the end of the year.”

The Cougars trained for this moment. The effort during summer lifting, camps and practices weren’t for the chance to roll over a patsy when students fill the stands. They welcome the chance to face a quality foe.

“The guys are fired up,” Kennedy senior linebacker Garrett Kubovec said. “We’ve been working hard for it. We expect nothing else than good competition. It is what we look forward to. You don’t come out expecting cupcakes every time. We want a tough opponent and look forward to the challenge.”

The intensity grows as the game nears. They have to balance that with focus during workouts so they can produce when they take the field.

“We know they will be flying around the ball,” Kennedy senior Nick Duehr said. “We know they will play to the whistle. We need to make sure we play to the whistle and get things done in practice so we can execute in the games.”

Recent treks launched in similar fashion. Kennedy received a reputation for stumbling out of the gate and coming on strong the last half of the season. Scheduling may have had an impact.

“You can go back the last seven seasons,” White said. “Everyone said we started slow. We didn’t start slow. We were in a situation where we played some of the state’s top teams in the first few weeks. Sometimes we’d come out on the good end and sometimes we’d come out on the short end.”

Last season, Kennedy turned the tide with hard-fought wins over Iowa City West and Cedar Rapids Washington, the 2014 state finalist, in the first two weeks. Those wins seemed to propel the Cougars to a 13-0 start and their first state semifinal victory.

“Those two tough games right away helped us buy into ourselves,” Kubovec said. “It made us a believer in our own hype.”

Kennedy had a controlled scrimmage against Waterloo West last week. White said he viewed that as their first action and now the goal is to build off that performance. The Cougars have to establish a strong line, losing Dalles Jacobus and Mason Jacobs to graduation, and replace some key skill position players, including all-staters Shaun Beyer and Tyler Dralle.

“You always look at what your most improvement is out of week one and week two,” White said. “We view our scrimmage last week against Waterloo West as week one, so Muscatine is going to be our week two.

“We want to improve,” White said. “They’re a great football team and we know it’s going to be a very difficult game.”

Duehr will likely be an important cog in the Cougar offense, filling the versatile role left by Beyer.

“He’s not just going to be at quarterback,” White said. “We’re going to what’s best for our team and maybe move him around a little back.”

Duehr is excited for his expanded responsibility.

“I love it,” Duehr said. “I love catching the ball sometimes instead of throwing it. It’s great.”

The Cougars will get a good gauge as to where they are compared to a strong opponent and even their squad from a year ago. They’ve been watching a lot of video and consumed with Muscatine. Time to try and earn a passing grade.

“The kids are excited,” White said. “They’re excited to get back out to the stadium and play again.

“This is a new team. These seniors want to leave their mark.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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