CEDAR RAPIDS — Most of the travel this season for the Cedar Rapids Jefferson football team will be nothing more than a short walk down the hill from the school to Kingston Stadium.
With the adjusted seven-game schedule due to the COVID-19 pandemic, six of the J-Hawks’ games will be in the friendly confines of Kingston. Coach Chris Buesing’s team has four home games and two “road” contests with city rivals Washington and Kennedy.
The only game away will be on Oct. 2 at Dubuque Hempstead.
“It’s really nice,” Buesing said of the revised schedule. “We got fortunate last year with the same thing happening. It’s really a relief for us because busing is kind of an issue this year. It’s just one less headache for six of the seven games this year.”
Jefferson fell short of the playoffs in 2019, finishing 4-5. Buesing said that team was just a few plays away from winning a couple more games that would have put it in the field.
That group was senior-dominated. Buesing and his staff knew the 2020 team would be short on game experience. The hope was to have many teaching moments during organized spring and summer activities.
Then came COVID-19 and, more recently, the storm that blew through Cedar Rapids, resulting in large amounts of damage, including the Jefferson campus.
“We knew we were going to be inexperienced,” Buesing said. “We had a schedule in the summer that was set up to get us experience. Then we were delayed, then delayed again. With a young team, we lost a third of our planned preparation time before the first game.
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“Unfortunately, that is just the way it is. We are going to be inexperienced, but talented. We have a lot of speed and we’re sitting around 40 (players), but it is a quality 40, a lot of guys who can play football.”
Heading the list of returners is linebacker Josiah Szabo. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound senior was in on 75 tackles, including eight for loss.
“He will be running the show on defense,” Buesing said.
Seniors Noah Dukes, a three-year regular, and Jackson Stone will play big roles along the offensive and defensive lines. Buesing said both battled injuries last year, but are healthy and ready to start the season.
Jefferson has a special teams weapon in senior kicker Jacob Cross. He was a second-team all-state punter last year, averaging 38.4 yards per punt. He also handles the placekicking chores.
With no experienced quarterback returning, the J-Hawks will turn to Carson Blietz to replace the graduated Jacob Coyle. Blietz was listed at 153 pounds as a sophomore, but the 5-11 junior is up to around 185 according to Buesing.
“Carson has done a nice job,” Buesing said. “He has done everything we have asked of him. He found ways to get workouts in and did a good job of building up his body. He will be the guy taking snaps when we open with (Cedar Rapids Washington).”
That opener is set for Aug. 28. Buesing said the storm that blew through on Aug. 10 almost forced that game to be delayed.
“We had to fight and scratch like crazy to get a field ready to practice (on Aug. 17),” he said. “The state mandates you have 10 practices before the first game and we had to practice that day and will every day up to that first game or we would have to postpone.”
All the events of 2020 have changed the perception of football for Buesing.
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“One thing I told the kids is that football gets you ready for real life,” he said. “This year, I think real life is getting you ready to play football.
“When Jeff and Wash play, with all the things these kids have been through this year, it will be a success that they even get a chance to play. I think the community and fans of both teams will have a lot to be proud of when they take the field at Kingston that night.”
Cedar Rapids Jefferson, at a glance
Coach: Chris Buesing (3rd year at Jefferson 5-13 overall)
Last year: 4-5 (Did not make the playoffs)
Top returners: Noah Dukes, C, Josiah Szabo TE/LB, Jacob Cross, K/P, Jackson Stone, OL/DL, Will Johnson OL/DL, Dkhai Pope, RB/DB, Carson Blietz, QB
Aug. 28 — at Cedar Rapids Washington
Sept. 3 — Iowa City Liberty
Sept. 11 — at Cedar Rapids Kennedy
Sept. 18 — Waterloo West
Sept. 25 — Iowa City West
Oct. 2 — at Dubuque Hempstead
Oct. 9 — Dubuque Senior