IOWA CITY — Iowa City Regina is no stranger to state championship games.
The unusual aspect is the Regals aren’t holding the previous crown and technically are underdogs in this one.
Actually, Regina is fortunate to be in its eighth straight title game, avoiding upsets in two earlier rounds this postseason. Forget the fact that it opened the season 0-2, capping an uncharacteristic three-game losing streak that dated back to the end of last season.
“We’re lucky enough, with the road that we’ve had, to be participating in this event,” Regina senior Jake Phillips said. “We’re just really grateful. Our season could have ended twice already on last-second field goals and I think we’re all just really grateful we have this opportunity.”
Third-ranked Regina will attempt to start a new streak, facing No. 2 and unbeaten Van Meter in the Class 1A state football final Friday at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls. The Regals (10-2) and Bulldogs (12-0) kick off at 11 a.m.
The Regals won an unprecedented six titles in a row before a runner-up finish to Western Christian in 2016.
“I love this group of seniors,” Regina Coach Marv Cook said after a 37-35 semifinal victory over Pella Christian. “They’ve worked so hard to get here and earn this opportunity, so I’m proud of them.”
The Regals suffered a sting last fall they had doled out to six different finals opponents. The streak was snapped and was tough to swallow, especially since players like Phillips, Steve Sehl and starting running back Isaac Vollstedt have had family members on those title teams.
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“Obviously, it was really tough,” Phillips said. “When you win six straight championships in a row and you’re part of the team that loses it, it’s pretty heartbreaking, but we use it as motivation. We wanted to get back to this spot.”
Cook said the Regals experienced frustration coming up short, but quickly refocused themselves during the offseason. They didn’t forget the feeling, using it to push them to improve.
“It’s definitely been in our minds in the offseason and even during the season,” Conlon said. “We try to go a week at a time. We’re going to use last year as motivation and try to go out and play Regina football.”
This season didn’t start with typical Regina football. The Regals opened with two straight losses to 3A semifinalists Cedar Rapids Xavier and Solon. Confidence never wavered, maintaining their expectation to play in the final 1A game of the season and getting young and new players up to speed.
They have run the table since Week 2.
“We knew both Solon and Xavier were great teams,” Phillips said. “Our coaches helped us a lot, keeping it in our minds that we have to work harder every day to get back to this opportunity.”
As the season progressed and Xavier, a 3A finalist, and Solon dominated opponents, the Regals felt better about those early setbacks. The losses were tough games that helped Regina overcome playoff challenges from South Winneshiek in double overtime and Pella Christian.
“They’re gut-check games,” Cook said. “When you’re tested early in the season, those things hopefully help you become stronger.”
The Regals have been led by a strong senior class, playing in a fourth consecutive championship tilt. Cook said many are “gym rats,” lifting at 6 a.m. and taking advantage of any opportunities to participate in activities.
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Vollstedt is the leading rusher with 1,081 yards and 17 touchdowns. Quarterback Michael Conlon has amassed more than 2,200 yards, including 1,862 passing yards and 18 TDs. Phillips is the leading receiver with 625 yards on 42 catches and six TDs. Phillips is also tied for the team lead with two interceptions.
Phillips said many have been playing sports together since third grade or earlier. They are a very tight group. They want the best for their teammates as much as themselves.
“We all know each other really well,” Phillips said. “We know what our strengths and weaknesses are and playing for the guy next to you pushes you a little extra, knowing one of your best friends is playing with you.
“It’s great having close-knit guys. We really care about each other. We want to win for one another.”
Cook said he thought any of the semifinal teams could win it all. Van Meter is one of the top offenses, including 1A’s leading rusher Carson Rhodes, who has 2,026 yards and 22 TDs on the ground. Blake Fryar has thrown for 1,652 yards and 25 TDs in a big-play offense.
The Regals will face a big challenge to get back on top, but they have battled to get another shot at the program’s eighth gold trophy.
“I’m excited for them,” Cook said. “I’m glad they earned a spot in the state championship game. Hopefully, they can finish it off.”
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