NORTH LIBERTY — The victories were memorable. The losses were expected.
No single result will define the Iowa City Liberty inaugural varsity football season. Success will be determined by the program’s future.
“I’ve always told the guys your record, being first, that’s not really special,” Lightning Coach Jeff Gordon said. “The work habits, the effort and the culture you’re building will be your legacy, especially this first year.”
Liberty has experienced the anticipated ups and downs of starting a varsity team. The Bolts own a 2-5 record, entering the final two weeks of the regular season which includes Thursday night’s road game against Davenport Assumption at Brady Street Stadium.
“Our guys had to learn it’s tough to win games at the varsity level,” Gordon said. “They’re finding out that five or six plays throughout a game, and you don’t know when they’re going to show up, can either get you a win or cost you a win.”
The building blocks to the program are forming and being put in place by the players who started playing for Gordon on Liberty’s freshman squad before the school was even erected. The 37-player roster on quikstatsiowa.com is dominated by 21 juniors and 11 sophomores.
For the most part, the Bolts have held up physically against older, more mature and experienced foes.
“It’s a growing process,” Gordon said. “I’m extremely proud. They bust their butts in the weight room. We just have to become better coaches, for one, and then be better football players.
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“We try to tell them the outcome hasn’t always been what we’ve wanted, but the things we’re doing throughout the week (and) season will lead to success in time.”
Gordon said coaches emphasized that the opportunity to play is accompanied by expectation to compete on the field and in the classroom. They also have to embrace the adversity that comes with this chance.
He still is looking for consistent emotion, noting the Bolts get too high when they score and too down when they allow one.
“It’s basically more mental than anything,” Gordon said. “We’ve been learning the attention and detail on Monday and Tuesday shows up on Friday. Mentally, what you tell yourself also reflects on how you play.”
The season started with a tough loss to Iowa City High, allowing a second-half lead slip away. Liberty didn’t have to wait long for its game-night success.
The Bolts received 120 rushing yards and two touchdowns from Jack Ankenbauer and a 2-yard score from Max Tafolla, downing Waterloo East, 18-6. The defense limited the Trojans to about 200 yards of offense and forced a turnover.
Gordon said it was a victory celebrated and shared by the administrations, coaches, players, band and the fans in the stands.
“It wasn’t the Rose Bowl or a state championship game,” said Gordon, who praised the community for its support. “It was one game we could build on, but to tell you the truth that sure was nice for everybody involved … That was a great night for everyone.”
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Junior Drake Woody has accounted for all 525 passing yards for Liberty this season. Ben Houselog is the leading receiver with 175 yards on nine catches, while Dawson Zimmerman has seven receptions for 92 yards.
Kaleb Williams has a team-high 487 rushing yards. Ankenbauer has 370 and five TDs, which is two more than Williams and Tafolla, who leads the Bolts with 65 total tackles including eight solo for loss. Williams also has 86 yards with a TD as a receiver and has been one of the players to show signs of being a leader.
“We have a lot of guys who do things right, but we still don’t have that vocal leader, yet,” Gordon said. “Kaleb Williams comes to mind. He’s not great all the time, but he’s getting there.
“We have a lot of guys that do it by example but we don’t have that one guy who is the voice of the team, yet. It’s tough but we’re working on it.”
Liberty finishes with the road games against the Knights (3-4, 2-1 Class 3A District 5) and at Clinton. Gordon said the focus is on improving and cleaning up mistakes that has plagued the team in recent weeks.
“We always talk about adversity and how we handle it,” Gordon said. “Something that’s been key all year and has shown up a lot the last two weeks is how much adversity are you creating for yourself.
“Just trying to take care of ourselves and be a better football team and players. That is what we’re looking for.”
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