Prep Football

Iowa City High searches for turnaround under loyal coach Dan Sabers

Little Hawks are coming off back-to-back 2-7 seasons

Iowa City High School Football Head Coach Dan Sabers instructs his team during preseason football practice at City High on Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019. (David Harmantas/Freelance)
Iowa City High School Football Head Coach Dan Sabers instructs his team during preseason football practice at City High on Saturday, Aug. 17, 2019. (David Harmantas/Freelance)
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Loyalty. It’s one of the reasons Dan Sabers said he has been with the Iowa City High football program since 1981, why the Little Hawks have had only four head football coaches since 1947 — two since the Carter administration, much like the Iowa football program.

City High’s head coach since 2001, Sabers fondly recalled the influence of former administrators and coaches. They took him under their wing, made him a part of the community and instilled the commitment and loyalty to the school he feels so strongly about.

“It made an impression on me that, boy, this is a special place,” Sabers said. “It didn’t take me to be around those people very long and I knew I didn’t want to let them down. ... There’s no way I could say, ‘Well, I’m going somewhere else.’ No, I’m not.”

Sabers’ longevity, and a record that includes three state championship appearances and a Class 4A title are why his players have confidence in him and his ability to help the team recover from two straight 2-7 seasons.

“He’s been around the block a few times, so he knows what’s going on,” junior quarterback Raph Hamilton said. “We really trust his judgment, and we know he’s a good coach.”

Senior center Kolbe Schnoebelen compared Sabers’ tenure to that of Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz.

“You know you’re doing something right when you coach the same team for 20 years,” Schnoebelen said.

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However, something was not right in the 2018 season, especially on offense. Last year, City High ranked last in its district in passing yards and third in rushing yards. The only district opponent with less total offense than the Little Hawks (2,385 yards) was Davenport North (1,929). It is the Little Hawks’ fewest total yards in a season going back to 2007.

Last year’s low offensive output is not stopping Sabers from getting excited about the 2019 squad, however.

“All my assistant coaches say, ‘He gets too damn excited early on.’ But that’s the only way to be,” Sabers said. “Why the hell be in it if you’re not going to get excited?”

Though the 2018 Little Hawks did not win many games, Sabers said he loved that team’s attitude. It is something that has carried over into summer workouts and early practices.

“Our weight room is electric. I just love the way it is,” Sabers said. “(The players) support each other, they get excited for each other.”

Hamilton agreed that weight room sessions have been charged, building camaraderie, chemistry and excitement.

“It’s been really cool to see. It’s just awesome,” he said.

It’s a change of culture Hamilton, Sabers and Schnoebelen all said was initiated last year by the program’s youngest, who arrived with a great attitude and a very good work ethic — attributes that influenced the upperclassmen.

“They came in as freshmen, worked hard and they are setting that culture that we need,” Schnoebelen said.

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Sabers and Hamilton said the team has experience, especially in the middle of the offense. Hamilton, who started seven games on the varsity squad as a sophomore, will take snaps from Schnoebelen, who started at center in 2018. Hamilton will be handing the ball to senior running back Tonka Hickman, who amassed 832 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Having a returning center, quarterback and running back is “a good place to start,” Sabers said.

And, Sabers added with a smile on his face, “We’re getting bigger.”

He said the team struggled the last few years because “we just didn’t have bigger bodies at City High.” The team was undersized on the line, and though his players battled as hard as they could, it was a tough task to block opponents who outweighed them by 50 or 60 pounds.

“Now we’re getting some size back. That’s really going to help us,” Sabers said.

What may not help is very little home cooking early in the season. The Little Hawks are on the road five of their first seven games. City High opens at Iowa City Liberty before hosting Cedar Falls in Week 2. The Little Hawks play at Ames in the Little Cy-Hawk rivalry game, then travel to Dubuque Hempstead in Week 4. After hosting Muscatine, the team heads to the Quad Cities two straight weeks before finishing the regular season at home against Linn-Mar and Iowa City West.

Sabers, however, found a silver lining with the schedule,

“We’ve got three out of our five district games at home, so that’s the way to look at it,” he said.

It may prove beneficial, especially since he believes the district is up for grabs.

It’s a taste of the optimism and excitement Sabers feels alongside his loyalty to City High and the game — reasons he’s walked the home sideline at Bates Field for so long. He said he’s very fortune and blessed to still be coaching.

“It’s a good situation to be in so you can give back as best you can,” he said.

Iowa City High Little Hawks

Coach: Dan Sabers (19th season, 136-61)

Last year: 2-7, missed playoffs

Top returners: QB/LB Raph Hamilton, RB/LB Tonka Hickman, C/DE Kolbe Schnoebelen.

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Keys to making the playoffs: With five of the first seven games away from Bates Field, the Little Hawks need to win on the road. The team also needs to rack up more yards on offense, control the line of scrimmage and re-establish the running attack.

Games to watch: Aug. 30 at Liberty will be City High’s first visit to the Iowa City district’s newest high school; Sept. 13 City High plays at Ames for the Little Cy-Hawk trophy; Oct. 25 is the annual Battle for the Boot against crosstown rival West.

Schedule

Aug. 30 — at Iowa City Liberty

Sept. 6 — No. 3 Cedar Falls

Sept. 13 — at Ames

Sept. 20 — at Dubuque Hempstead

Sept. 27 — Muscatine

Oct. 3 — at Davenport North

Oct. 11 — at Pleasant Valley

Oct. 18 — Linn-Mar

Oct. 25 — No. 6 Iowa City West

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