NORTH LIBERTY — For the first time, Iowa City Liberty’s football program is on equal ground with its opponents.
The Lightning begin their second season as a varsity program with four full classes of players for the first time. Coach Jeff Gordon’s mantra from the beginning has been about his athletes developing as players and good citizens.
“We have high expectations for our student-athletes on and off the field,” Gordon said. “We expect and demand a lot from our kids in the classroom, the community and on the field.”
Liberty’s senior class has been the model for that philosophy. They went 5-4 as freshmen, 6-3 as sophomores and 3-6 as juniors in their first varsity campaign. Gordon, a former Iowa City West player who grew up in North Liberty, has been their coach from the start.
“It has been an incredible journey and a very unique experience,” he said. “These original guys have grown so much as players but more importantly they have matured and grown so much as young men. It has just been an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything.”
That journey, in terms of football, comes to an end this season. With only one senior, the Lightning were a competitive group in 2018. They gave Iowa City High a scare in their first varsity game before losing, 38-21. After gaining their first win — 18-6 over Waterloo East — in Week 2, the Lightning added two more wins, downing Mid-Prairie and closing with a 42-21 win over Clinton.
With an entire roster returning, Gordon’s optimism is high.
“The Bolts are excited for the 2019 season,” Gordon said. “It is our fourth season as a program and the first featuring a senior class. The players have dedicated themselves to training. The strength and conditioning program has seen our athletes make significant gains in strength, speed and agility over the course of our offseason”
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Liberty returns three all-district performers for 2019, headed up by Kaleb Williams. At 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds, Williams proved to be an all-around performer for the Lightning in 2018. He rushed for 686 yards and five touchdowns. Defensively, he was fourth on the team in solo tackles (35) and he was Liberty’s top kickoff return threat.
On a team full of leaders, Williams is prime example for all.
“Kaleb is a tremendous young man,” Gordon said. “He has high character, unparalleled work ethic and a never say die spirit. We are looking forward to Kaleb having an outstanding senior season.”
In fact, Gordon expects big things from his entire senior class.
“All of our seniors will be counted on as being key contributors,” he said. “They are all positioned to have big senior seasons.”
Senior Dawson Zimmerman and junior Max Tafolla will be the defensive anchors. They were the top tacklers and contributed on offense, as well. Tafolla had 64 solo tackles, including 12 for loss, and ran for more than 400 yards while Zimmerman had 36 solo stops and caught nine passes.
In a Class 3A district where Clear Creek Amana and North Scott went to the playoffs last year, Gordon has no expectations in relations to wins and losses.
“We just want to keep getting better everyday,” he said. “Our goals are pretty simple — we want to be the most physical team on the field each and every night we take the field.
“We will not define our success by our record alone, but rather in the accomplishments of these seniors 20 years from now. We expect them to be leaders and role models for their families, communities and in their chosen profession. We seek to create lifelong leaders from our football program.”
Liberty opens its season at home Aug. 30 against Iowa City High.
Iowa City Liberty Lightning
Coach: Jeff Gordon (2nd year, 3-6)
Last year: 3-6
Top returners: QB/P Drake Woody, RB/LB Kaleb Williams, RB/DB Jack Ankenbauer, RB-DB Max Tafolla, TE/DE Dawson Zimmerman, RB/DB Ben Kruger, OL/DL Max Lenene, OL-DL Sam Nicklaus
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Key to making playoffs: Continued improvement. Gordon’s team showed growth in its first season of varsity football in 2018. The Lightning have a senior class that has been with Gordon for four years and this is their chance to make a mark in Liberty athletics. Not likely many will favor the Lightning to make the playoffs, but the Lightning athletics program as a whole has made great strides in its first three years and who is to say the football team won’t be next.
Games to watch: The district opener against neighboring Clear Creek Amana should be a good indicator of how Liberty might fare in the race for the playoffs. The Clippers have a talented team and a win there could propel Liberty to a magical season.
Aug. 30 — Iowa City High
Sept. 6 — at Waterloo East
Sept. 13 — Washington
Sept. 20 — at Mid-Prairie
Sept. 27 — No. 10 Clear Creek Amana
Oct. 4 — at No. 5 North Scott
Oct. 11 — at DeWitt Central
Oct. 18 — Davenport Assumption
Oct. 25 — Clinton