INDEPENDENCE — Their postseason tradition is short, and not sweet.
Three playoff appearances, in 1985, 2014 and 2015.
Three first-round exits.
And yet, the Independence Mustangs are thinking big.
“I’m thinking we’re going to the (UNI-)Dome,” senior linebacker Cole Davis said. “I’ve never been inside there. If I’m not there to play, I don’t want to go to watch.”
In three years, the Mustangs have improved from 0-9 to 4-6 to 6-3.
They were 6-1 last season before dropping their last two games, to Waverly-Shell Rock and Decorah.
“At the end of the year, we lost focus a little bit,” quarterback/safety Logan Schmitt said. “We got a little too full of ourselves.
“Expecting to win isn’t a bad thing, but when you forget about the process that gets you there, that’s when you get in trouble.”
It’s part of maturity. And Independence now has a veteran crew, full of seniors.
“We’re the hardest-working class,” said Davis, who knows what work can produce; he was a state placewinner in wrestling last winter.
“We don’t take anything for granted. We’re more of a family than a team. We have each other’s backs, and we play as one.”
Last year’s finish wasn’t a great experience at the time. But it was an experience.
“We learned what it takes to be in a district-championship hunt,” Coach Justin Putz said, “We also learned that you win by being more physical, and Decorah and Waverly-Shell Rock were just more physical than we were.”
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Nine starters return on defense, led by Davis (88 tackles, four fumble recoveries) and end Christian Kremer (47.5 tackles, 13 for loss).
Davis suffered a nasty cut last season against Charles City, which required 20 stitches.
“I thought it was just turf burn, then I looked down and there was a big gash,” he said. “At first I didn’t want to come out, I talked to the trainer and we taped it up.”
He missed 10 plays, then returned.
“Cole’s just a tough, old-school middle linebacker,” Putz said.
Eight starters return on offense.
Schmitt’s thumbprints are all over both sides of the ball. He passed for 1,414 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, rushed for 902 yards and 13 TDs, collected 53 tackles and intercepted four passes.
He got special teams off.
“After we scored a touchdown, I’d put my helmet down, get a drink of water, take a couple of deep breaths during the kickoff, then put my helmet back on and get back on the field,” he said.
Brady Webb caught 19 passes for 337 yards and five touchdowns.
When expectations rise, it’s visible. And audible.
“I can tell a difference this year,” Schmitt said. “The intensity and energy are different. Last year in 7-on-7, it was pretty relaxed. This year, Putz was getting all fired up. All the attitudes have changed.”
Each day during the first week of practice, Putz had a different motto. One day, it was “identity.”
“Who are we going to be?” Putz asked.
OK, who are they?
“We want to be a team that plays to the whistle, plays clean, plays smart,” he said. “We want to be a tough, hard-nosed, disciplined football team.”
Coach: Justin Putz (6th year, 24-26)
Last year: 10-2 overall, 5-0 Class 2A District 4 (1st), 2A state semifinalist
Top returners: QB/DB Logan Schmitt, WR/CB Brady Webb, OL/DE Christian Kremer, LB Cole Davis, RB/LB Kaine Millard
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Key to making the playoffs: Putz believes the Mustangs must be more physical than last year. Staying healthy, of course, is paramount. Special teams must improve; Putz is looking for a kicker to step up.
Games to watch: The Mustangs should be favored in each of their four non-district games. They have an opportunity to start their district schedule off with a bang against archrival West Delaware. Get past that one, and it’s possible the Mustangs could take a 7-0 mark into their final stretch against Waverly-Shell Rock and Decorah.
Aug. 30 — Oelwein
Sept. 6 — at South Tama
Sept. 13 — at Maquoketa
Sept. 20 — Center Point-Urbana
Sept 27 — at West Delaware
Oct. 4 — at Waterloo East
Oct. 11 — Charles City
Oct. 18 — at Waverly-Shell Rock
Oct. 25 — Decorah
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