IOWA CITY — The music blares throughout the lively weight room.
Outside on the practice field, a large group of football players are bouncing around, running through position drills at the enthusiastic direction of a group of high-energy coaches.
The scene hardly resembles that of a two-win program. Opportunity has renewed the excitement in Iowa City High football.
“The vibe has been excellent, oh boy,” City High Coach Dan Sabers said. “I’m just really excited about the enthusiasm. I challenged them after our season, I said, ‘Hey guys, we’ve just got to get more powerful and more explosive. There’s just no other way about it.’ So we really talked to them about nutrition and lifting properly and being explosive when they lifted and, boy, they have really responded and the main factor is the great enthusiasm that they have. That’s exciting.
“We’re going to be successful. We’ll see how the wins and losses turn, but this group is going to be successful. They’re going to care about each other. We’ve got some good talent at all of the other levels. We’re excited.”
Last season, the Little Hawks lost their final four games after beginning the year with a 2-3 record. The 2018 district slate includes Davenport North, Muscatine, Linn-Mar, Pleasant Valley and archrival Iowa City West, with the famed “Battle for the Boot” scheduled for the regular-season finale on Oct. 19 at West.
“At this point, I’m just excited,” Sabers said. “I like our schedule. I think it is a good schedule. Some good balance.”
City High opens the season on Friday with a home game against Iowa City Liberty, the first game in the history of the Lightning’s program.
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“We’ve got to come out against that team,” City High senior middle linebacker Liam McComas said. “We’ve been preaching it since we started summer workouts that Day 1, when we come up against Liberty we’ve got to make it happen down there on Bates (Field). Definitely just come out, get all the emotions going for these younger guys, let them see what a win feels like down on Bates, that great feeling when Sabers is all hyped up in the end zone. It’s a great feeling. Those young guys need to get to know that because we didn’t have much of that last year.”
Six-foot-4 senior Quincy Wells has a leg up in the starting quarterback position battle against sophomore Raphael Hamilton. Both are run-pass threats with similar physiques, but the experience of spot-duty Wells saw in a backup role last season has been evident early in camp.
“It just helped me realize what I need to work on, which is a lot of things,” Wells said. “It’s a lot different level at the varsity. ... I didn’t start any games until sophomore year. I played O-line in youth and then wide receiver in junior high. I kind of stuck with it from freshman year, so it’s good to be able to compete for it here.”
Junior Tonka Hickman appears poised for a breakout varsity season in the backfield. The 5-8 tailback broke the sophomore-level school record for rushing yards last season, which included a 383-yard, eight-touchdown effort against Clinton in Week 5.
“That’s saying something around here,” Sabers said. “He’s looking very good, worked hard, got himself stronger. ... He sees things very well. He makes some cuts that we think, ‘Hey, that was nice.’ We like that. He’s a good back. A very good back.”
Senior Malik Kimber (21 catches, 147 yards, two TDs last season) and junior Kaleba Jack should see more opportunities at receiver with the graduation of Iowa State walk-on Zach Jones, as will senior tight end Evan Gunder, who added 20-25 pounds to his 6-4 frame.
“I think we’re going to have a really solid offense,” Gunder said. “I think it going to be surprising, actually, to see how well we do. I think it is going to be very different from last year and it is just exciting to see.”
On defense, Mark Mitchell returns to City High following a stint at Clear Creek Amana to lead a defense that allowed at least 52 points on four occasions last season and forced just two turnovers.
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“I fired myself,” Sabers said with a laugh. “He’s going to head up the defense. ... It’s been very great. The organization has been great, the enthusiasm has been great.”
On the field, the defense will be led by an experienced trio of linebackers in senior Max DePrenger (team-high 64 1/2 tackles last season), McComas and senior Kyle Hefley.
Senior Jack Bacon and Jacob Murry will man the defensive line, with Gunder at end. Positions in the secondary will be up for grabs during camp among a group of juniors in need of an opportunity.
“We’re having fun,” McComas said. “We get here every morning. We all just get with each other, hype each other up, get each other ready for the day and know that we’re going to have to put in some hard work. Get each other better. The attitudes are fantastic. We couldn’t ask for any better.”
Iowa City High, at a glance
Coach: Dan Sabers (18th season, 134-54)
Last year: 2-7, failed to make Class 4A playoffs
Top returners: OL/DL Jack Bacon, OL/DL Garrett Rosenow, OL/DL Jacob Murry. OL/LB Liam McComas, R/LB Malik Kimber, TB/LB Max Deprenger, FB/LB Kyle Hefley, QB/FS Quincy Wells
Key to making the playoffs: The Little Hawks have an opportunity to get off to a strong start with non-district games against a new program in Iowa City Liberty and a pair of below-.500 teams from last season, Ames and Dubuque Hempstead. A win over either Pleasant Valley or crosstown rival Iowa City West will likely be necessary.
Games to watch: Oct. 19, at Iowa City West: The 50th installment of the traditional “Battle for the Boot” grudge match against defending state runner-up West will have a much different feel to it this year as it closes the regular season for both schools. No matter the playoff implications, the emotions will be high.
Aug 24 — Iowa City Liberty
Aug 31 — at Cedar Falls
Sept. 7 — Ames
Sept. 14 — Dubuque Hempstead
Sept. 21 — at Muscatine
Sept. 28 — Davenport North
Oct. 5 — Pleasant Valley
Oct. 12 — at Linn-Mar
Oct. 19 — Iowa City West
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