Prep Football

Iowa City Liberty football looks to keep climbing in first Class 4A season

Lightning bring back few starters, but senior class has been part of strength program since 8th grade

Iowa City Liberty breaks from huddle versus Solon during the first half of play in Solon on Friday, November 1, 2019 for
Iowa City Liberty breaks from huddle versus Solon during the first half of play in Solon on Friday, November 1, 2019 for the first round of the state football playoffs. (Justin Torner/Freelance for The Gazette)

NORTH LIBERTY — Iowa City Liberty’s senior football players were in eighth grade when the strength and conditioning program was instituted.

All those early-morning weights, repetitions and workouts and an emphasis on the basics could be what powers the Lightning this fall.

“Hopefully, the work in the weight room over the last five years has paid off,” Liberty Coach Jeff Gordon said. “We want to be fundamental blockers and tacklers. That’s pretty much where we’ll start and go from there. We want to be good at the simple things.”

The Lightning join the Class 4A field for the first time this season, following last year’s 7-3 performance that ended with its first playoff appearance and a first-round loss to eventual 3A state runner-up Solon. Despite just seven returning starters, Liberty will attempting to continue the steady strides that have come in its first two seasons of varsity competition. The season begins Friday at home against Iowa City West.

“We’re sure excited to be playing football, especially after the last four months,” Gordon said. “Like we told these guys all along, this is our opportunity. The first guys that were here had an opportunity to start it and these guys are the first class to go to 4A. As much as that is the big picture, we try to get better each day.

“The only limits we have are the ones that we place on ourselves. That is how we look at it.”

Work ethic propelled many of the players through the offseason, even though some of the normal activities were disrupted by the pandemic. The unsatisfied feeling from last year’s playoff loss paired with the need to replace 14 starters to motivate everyone with eyes set on stepping in the lineup.

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“We’ve had a lot of players to step in to fill shoes,” said senior Kelby Telander, who will miss his final season due to a recent “freak accident” when a wrist tendon and three fingers were severely cut due to a shattered kitchen lamp. “The dedication they put in for the offseason is insane. I’ve never seen a team showing up for morning weights so much.

“The amount of weight the linemen have put on is mind blowing. Some of them are sophomores. They knew they needed to play a bigger role this coming season, being juniors and upperclassmen now. They took that on as a reason to work harder. … The skill positions have been working on their speed. All of their 40-yard dash times have improved. It’s not just lifting they’re doing.”

Facing a Mississippi Valley Conference regular-season schedule is a highlight. Liberty will face many of the programs that the school’s other programs have been playing, including Iowa City school district foes West and City High.

“The whole team is excited about competing in a 4A schedule this year,” Telander said. “It will be a good test.”

Defensively, Liberty allowed a little more than 14 points per game and 250 yards per contest, including just 97.5 through the air on average. Five defensive starters return, including Darius Willis-Newell, who was third on the team with 48 1/2 tackles, including 3 1/2 for loss.

Senior Max Tafolla is one of four all-district selections back for the Lightning. He is joined by senior lineman Kolton Fangman, junior wide receiver/defensive back Luke Meyers and running back/defensive back Jacob Adams.

“Max Tafolla has played a lot of football for us,” Gordon said. “Colton Fangman is a lineman and Kelby Telander has played a lot of football, lifted a lot of weights and played multiple sports in the school.

“The seniors that are there are the ones we look to and know they’ve been through the fire a little bit. We had a bunch of them play. Four of them as freshmen had to play up, so it’s just normal for them.”

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Tafolla was the leading rusher last season, amassing 1,136 yards and eight touchdowns. He thrived in the run-oriented, physical attack, carrying the ball 201 times himself, almost 2 1/2 times as much as the team’s 85 total passes.

Willis-Newell is the only other running back to rush for more than 100 yards last season.

A change in offensive coordinators could bring a new look, according to Gordon. Liberty will rely on the foundation the program – stopping the run, being able to tackle, running the ball — but you might see a little more balance than the past.

“We have to find out what we’re good at and do it well,” Gordon said. “We have to be physical at the point of attack, wherever that is.”

Iowa City Liberty, at a glance

Coach: Jeff Gordon (3rd year, 10-9)

Last year: 7-3, first-round playoffs

Top returners: RB/DB Jacob Adams, Max Beckman, OL/DL Kolton Fangman, Brody Fishman, Jacob Ganoe, Gage Gingergich, Henry Lucy, WR/DB Luke Meyers, RB/LB Darius Newell, Daqwan Sanders, Larry Schillig, TE/DL Colin Shults, RB/DE Max Tafolla, WR/DB Kelby Telander, Klein Thoensen, Hayden Vickroy.

2020 schedule:

Aug. 28 — Iowa City West

Sept. 4 — at Cedar Rapids Jefferson

Sept. 11 — Linn-Mar

Sept. 18 — at Cedar Falls

Sept. 25 — Cedar Rapids Washington

Oct. 2 — Cedar Rapids Prairie

Oct. 9 — at Iowa City High

Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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