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MARION — Paul James sported a black shirt and a grin on the second day of football practice at Linn-Mar Stadium.
“How does it look?” he asked.
The smile appeared genuine. The black shirt looked ... different.
After 41 years serving Cedar Rapids Washington, James has changed schools — and colors. He’s a Linn-Mar Lion now, accepting the challenge of rebuilding a proud program.
“I like him a lot. He knows the sport,” said quarterback Trot Carey. “He’s easy to talk to, and he’s hilarious.
“Every now and then, he’ll throw out a short sentence, just three or four words, and it will make me crack up.”
James wasn’t looking to leave Washington, where he had fashioned a 97-57 record in a 15-year, two-stint run as the head coach.
“(Linn-Mar) came knocking on my door, and it’s been really rejuvenating,” he said. “The idea of a single high school in a district was appealing. To have all the kids in one district focused on one program, that was really appealing.”
James succeeds Bob Forsyth, who resigned after nine seasons and a 51-39 record. Linn-Mar was 3-6 last year.
What did James inherit?
“I honestly don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t seen them in action yet, with pads. We’re going to feel our way along.”
If James is rejuvenated by the new school, his new players seem refreshed.
“Last year, we had a lot of guys who didn’t care,” linebacker Isaiah Garman said. “Some didn’t make the best decisions. This year, we want to be better. We want to win.”
Added lineman Riley Higgins: “Everything’s a lot more organized this year. A lot of attention is paid to details.”
The first order of business is to overhaul a defense that allowed nearly 35 points per game.
“We’re going to try to change the whole mindset,” James said. “We want to be aggressive and put a lot of pressure on the other team.”
So it’s no surprise that James — black shirt and all — spent a good portion with defensive linemen, teaching technique.
“Read your keys,” he said. “Fly to the ball. Make something happen!”
Garman led the team in tackles last year with 57, and returns. He expects to move from outside linebacker to the middle. Chayse Schultz added 34 stops.
There’s little debate that the Lions need to get stronger and tougher. Now there’s a system in place to make it happen.
“One of the big things is that we’ve developed a schoolwide lifting program,” James said. (Athletics directors) Dave (Brown) and Tonya (Moe) have taken good leadership of it, getting everybody on board.
“It’s a great cohesive thing for all the athletic programs.”
Weightroom attendance — 6:45 in the morning — has increased steadily since January.
“We’ve got some good all-around athletes,” James said. “A lot of the baseball kids that were successful this past summer, they’re going to help us a lot.”
That includes Carey, primarily a receiver last year. He will move to the quarterback slot.
“I grew up as a quarterback,” he said. “I think I can tuck it and run well, throw on the run, move in the pocket.”
As is the case virtually everywhere, playoffs are a goal at Linn-Mar. The Lions were fourth in Class 4A District 8 last year, and the top two teams advance to the postseason.
“Sure, we have goals,” James said. “We’re going to see how things pan out. The big thing is getting better every practice and every game.
“We’re going to have to go at least 2-1 (against Iowa City West, Cedar Rapids Kennedy and Cedar Rapids Prairie) to make it. The first four games will be a way to improve, continue to learn the system.”
The Lions open at home against Iowa City High. The juicy non-district encounter, of course, is Sept. 14 — against Washington at Kingston Stadium.
“We got a taste of that this summer in 7-on-7. It was pretty emotional for the kids, I think,” James said. “To me, it’s just another game. I can’t get hung up on that.”
Before ushering a couple players to speak with a reporter, James issued a warning: Say the right things.
“We don’t know what we’ve got,” he told them. “We do know we’ve been working hard.
“We’ve got nothing to pump our chests about ... yet.”
Coach: Paul James (16th season overall, 97-57; 1st season at Linn-Mar, 0-0)
Last year: 3-6 (4th in district, no playoffs)
Top returning letterwinners: QB Trot Carey, LB Isaiah Garman, LB Chayse Schultz, OL/DL Riley Higgins, PK Austin Cochrane
Key losses: QB Reese Phillips, WR Josh Gassmann, WR Kirby Kerr, DB Joshua Strauss
Key to making the playoffs: Objective No. 1 is shoring up a defense that allowed nearly 35 points per game. The Lions need to get better in the trenches — bigger, stronger, tougher, more physical.
Games to watch: Linn-Mar travels to Kingston Stadium on Sept. 14 in a game in which James will face his former team from Cedar Rapids Washington. The Lions face a district gauntlet in Weeks 6-8 against Cedar Rapids Kennedy (away), Cedar Rapids Prairie (home) and Iowa City West (away).
Aug. 25 — Iowa City High
Sept. 1 — at Cedar Rapids Xavier
Sept. 8 — Cedar Rapids Jefferson
Sept. 14 — at Cedar Rapids Washington
Sept. 22 — Ottumwa
Sept. 29 — at Cedar Rapids Kennedy
Oct. 6 — Cedar Rapids Prairie
Oct. 13 — at Iowa City West
Oct. 20 — Burlington
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