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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Battles between highly-ranked teams? Yes.
Regional rivals? Of course.
Programs fighting over a traveling trophy and novelty games? You bet.
The first full week of the prep football season has a little of everything for fans.
The clash between Class 3A second-ranked Cedar Rapids Xavier and 1A No. 1 and defending state champion Iowa City Regina is among the marquee matchups in an exciting slate of games scheduled for Week 1.
The teams will meet for the third straight year, kicking off Friday night at 7. Instead of a midseason classic the programs have split, this time the Saints host the Regals, who have won six straight state titles. The series has produced everything it promised.
“It’s solid, good old-fashioned high school football,” Xavier Coach Duane Schulte said. “We’ve had two really good football games against these guys.”
Regina won the 2014 contest, 21-7. The four-time defending 1A state champions played up a couple classes, including a longtime series with 3A power Solon. The Xavier game is another opportunity to play a quality opponent.
“It’s a chance to play a great football team,” Regina all-state lineman and University of Northern Iowa recruit Jared Brinkman said. “It helps us later in the year. It’s fun because we’re both physical teams. We both want to beat each other.”
Last year was a memorable finish that Xavier claimed with a furious second-half comeback. The Saints handed Regina its only loss of the season, erasing a 35-7 deficit at the break with a last-second field goal. The result’s sting provided some motivation during the off-season.
“They had a great comeback,” Brinkman said. “We’ll prepare even harder this year and bring our best the whole game. I think we’re ready to do that.”
Regina won’t be the only team looking for revenge. Mount Vernon has not beaten Solon since 2002, but the Mustangs begin the season ranked No. 1 in 2A after a state finals appearance last season. The Spartans have won 13 straight games in the series and expect a battle from their Highway 1 counterpart.
“They are going to play hard and be physical,” Solon Coach Kevin Miller said. “Obviously, they return a lot of guys on the offensive line and return an outstanding quarterback (Drew Adams) and (Jack) Cochrane at running back. Certainly they have the pieces in place to be an outstanding football team.”
The series has been one-sided for more than a decade, including a 35-14 Solon victory last year. The Mustangs even acknowledge they haven’t contributed much to the rivalry recently. This could be one of their best chances to turn the tide, and it’s a win they want.
“The energy we’ve had this week has been good,” Mount Vernon lineman and University of Iowa recruit Tristan Wirfs. “Last year, I think everyone wanted to have the mentality that this is the year we can do it, but they weren’t 100-percent sure.
“This year, a lot of our guys have confidence that we can do it and actually believe we have the ability to get it done.”
The rivalry might be heated during competition, but Miller said there is something else at the heart of it. A similarity exists between the schools and the areas.
“We hold Mount Vernon and its athletic programs and community in high regard,” Miller said. “I think there is a mutual respect.”
The Spartans will counter with a strong defense and experienced skill-position players. Miller said Solon still is searching for its identity and it may take a few weeks for strengths to emerge. He said he likes the potential.
“I feel good about the pieces we have in place,” Miller said. “We have some guys with some valuable experience but we also have some guys who don’t.”
Regional rivals Independence and West Delaware will meet for the 103rd time, dating back to 1899, according to Independence assistant and statistician Matt Shannon. The Hawks own a 52-47-3 advantage, winning 15 of the last 16 against the Mustangs.
The teams combined for 20 wins last season, including West Delaware’s 13-9 win at Independence. Both teams graduated a lot of key players from a year ago.
“I like non-district games that are challenging,” said West Delaware Coach Doug Winkowitsch, who led the Hawks to the 3A state semifinals in 2015. “You can find out where you’re at.
“The most important thing is to find out where we need to improve and where are strengths.”
Monticello heads to Anamosa for the annual battle for the coveted Cowbell Game between the two programs. Anamosa has won two straight in the series, but the Panthers own a 53-36-5 record in the rivalry.
Central City and Springville once shared a program and were named the Catbirds. The two programs were part of the first major wave of Eastern Iowa teams to move to 8-player football. The split has allowed them to participate in the annual Tractor Bowl, where residents drive actual tractors to the game. This year the game will be held at Springville.
BGM reached the Class A quarterfinals last year and hosts top-10 rival Montezuma at Brooklyn. The Bears are ranked eighth, while the Braves are ninth.
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