IOWA CITY — A lot of talent has walked out the door following two straight trips to the Class 4A state championship game and there are less kids on hand to fill those spots, but you won’t find any excuses coming from the Iowa City West football complex.
“You can never replace the kids that graduate,” West Coach Garrett Hartwig said. “But as a coach, my philosophy, and my staff’s philosophy, is that we never really tried to. The next senior class becomes who they are going to be, the best they can, and we accentuate their strengths. To sit here and talk about, ‘I wish we had this kid back, do you remember when we had that kid?’ it’s dumb. They’re not back and I think it’s just a waste of time and energy to think about what it was as opposed to what it is.”
The Trojans are in the midst of determining what it is. Gone from the 2016 and 2017 state runner-up teams are the likes of Oliver Martin, Devontae Lane, Traevis Buchanan, Iowa freshman linebacker Dillon Doyle and 2017 Iowa Gatorade player of the year, quarterback Evan Flitz. The opening of Liberty High School is starting to impact the Trojans’ ability to fill those gaps. This year’s senior class remains intact, but the numbers are down in the junior class. Many juniors who began attending high school at West are now at Liberty.
“As far as a teacher goes, in this district, it’s been great having more manageable class sizes,” Hartwig said. “As a coach, you want a lot of guys out. Our numbers are still solid. Our junior class is quite a bit smaller, but our freshman and sophomore classes have rebounded a little bit already. At the end of the day, as a high school coach, you work with the kids that walk through the door and want to play football. It’s our job to make it work.”
The Trojans return a healthy amount of talent to make it work. Seniors Landon Green, Josh Halverson, and Jason Strunk all started in various packages along the defensive line last season. Green, a state shot put champion, is set to start at nose guard.
“Pound-for-pound, he’s just an animal,” Hartwig said. “He looks a little bit undersized but he is very difficult to block. He leads by example with his play.”
Senior Owen McAreavy returns to hold down the middle linebacker spot. Grant Henderson is a name Hartwig expects to see emerge on the defensive side of the ball, and he likes his young talent. as well.
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“We have some very talented sophomores who can compete for varsity time this year,” Hartwig said. “If not Week 1, by Week 5, maybe for districts. By Week 9, perhaps, and hopefully beyond, into the playoffs. But playoffs don’t happen without having a good first week of practice.”
Hartwig will be leaning heavily on Army commit Cole Mabry.
“He’s a natural leader,” Hartwig said. He plays primarily on the defensive side of the ball. We’re going to look to use him everywhere on the field. He’s such a conditioned athlete that he may be able to handle 80 plays a game, playing on the offensive side this year with his talent level.”
The main task as fall practice opens will be finding a replacement for Flitz, the two-year starter behind center who completed 70 percent of his passes for 5,240 yards and 53 touchdowns over the course of his career.
It appears to be a two-way battle at this point, with room for a third candidate to emerge. Seniors Joey Kuehn and Noah Aanestad are the main contenders.
“We don’t know yet,” Hartwig said. “We’ve had 7-on-7s all summer. Both have done well. You don’t take a whole lot away from 7-on-7 other then the quarterback just learning his reads and competing. Both of those two have done a great job.”
Whomever wins the job, there will be no time to ease their way in. The Trojans’ non-conference slate includes Bettendorf, Southeast Polk and North Scott.
“It’s murderers row,” Hartwig said. “We’ll be battle-tested by the time we get to districts.”
For the first time since 2013, Iowa City High returns as a district opponent.
“Although it’s a game that has always certainly mattered across this town, the last several years it hasn’t counted toward anything other than bragging right in a lot of ways,” Hartwig said. “Now, with them in the district the stakes are even higher and that adds a little more emphasis to the game.”
Iowa City West, at a glance
Coach: Garrett Hartwig (5th year, 34-16)
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Last year: 12-1, (Class 4A District 8 champion, lost in Class 4A championship game)
Top returners: LB Cole Mabry, DT Landon Green, LB/FB Owen McAreavy, DL Josh Halverson, DL Jason Strunk, QB Joey Kuehn, QB Noah Aanestad, LB Brendan Mott, OL Ian Gluesing, WR Jalen Gaudet, OL Marshall Blatz, OL Joe Westemeyer, TE Noah Breitbach
Key to making the playoffs: Settle on a quarterback and shore up the lines.
Games to watch: Aug. 31 at Bettendorf, Sept. 21 vs. Pleasant Valley and Oct. 19 vs. Iowa City High
Aug. 24 — North Scott
Aug. 31 — at Bettendorf
Sept. 7 — Southeast Polk
Sept. 14 — at Dubuque Senior
Sept. 21 — Pleasant Valley
Sept. 28 — at Linn-Mar
Oct. 5 — at Davenport North
Oct. 12 — Muscatine
Oct. 19 – Iowa City High