MARION — Linn-Mar’s last winning football season came in 2014.
An undersized, but athletic group of seniors, led by quarterback Ryan Schmidt, finished 9-2 after suffering through a 2-7 season in 2013.
The 2018 Lions finished 3-6, losing four games by a touchdown or less and two by just a single point.
In 2019, Linn-Mar is an undersized, but athletic group. It has a strong senior class returning, led by quarterback Marcus Orr.
Can history repeat itself for the Lions?
“I think we’ve got a great chance to be in every game,” said third-year coach Paul James. “We’ve got some good skill kids coming back and some new additions. Our team defensive speed and quickness is good.”
There were growing pains to be sure in James’ first two years at Linn-Mar after a successful career at Cedar Rapids Washington.
“Sophomore year we hit camp at this exact time, we really didn’t know what we were doing,” said senior lineman Cleo Gehrls. “This year, everybody on the team knows exactly what they are supposed to be doing.”
James saw that growth firsthand over the summer. In James’ first two years, the varsity and sophomore teams worked together in the summer. This year it worked out better schedule-wise for the varsity to work with the incoming freshmen.
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“We did drills together and the freshmen were really learning a lot,” he said. “When they would be back in line, the varsity players were really working on teaching the freshmen about how to do things. That reinforces that this senior group coming in has a good grasp on everything we do so now they can work on the finer points of the game.”
Those finer points include eliminating the key mistakes that haunted the Lions in 2018.
“We definitely shot ourselves in the foot a few times last year,” Orr said. “That’s definitely something we are looking to improve on. Really, we beat ourselves quite a bit last year.
“Our record didn’t show it, but I don’t think many teams wanted to play us.”
Orr is looking to build on a solid junior season where he completed 128 of 228 passes for 1,643 yards and 12 touchdowns. He rushed for three more scores. The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder is a natural leader, according to his coach.
“Marcus has a great idea of what we are trying to do and what he needs to do,” James said. “The other players look up to him and respect him. He’s in a great position to have a great year.”
Gehrls (6-2, 270), is by far Linn-Mar’s biggest lineman. He knows much is expected of him this fall, but was quick to praise the work of his teammates in the trenches.
“We’ve got a lot of depth in the line and we’ve got a few seniors who didn’t play as much last year,” Gehrls said. “On defense, we’ve got a lot of really young guys. We’re going to be small, but we are going to be fast. We are all pretty strong. All of our guys in there are really competitive.”
Trey Martin is expected to lead what James hopes will be a gritty defensive backfield. He said attention to detail and being ready to play each week will be critical for Linn-Mar.
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“During the week, we’ve got to prepare ourselves better than we did last year in district play,” he said. “We have the talent, no question about that, but we have to execute as a team if we want to win.”
James likes what he sees so far from a group that includes several players from last fall’s district champion sophomore team and an unbeaten freshman group.
“We were right on the verge last year, but things didn’t go quite our way when they needed to,” he said. “Hopefully, we do the right things this year and the final scores go in our favor.”
Coach: Paul James (3rd year at Linn-Mar, 5-13, 18th year overall, 102-70)
Last year: 3-6
Top returners: QB Marcus Orr, RB/LB Cameron Walker, WR/DB Trey Martin, RB Coy Sarsfield, RB/LB Sam Starnes, OL/DL Cleo Gehrls, WR/P Brandon Raus, WR/TE Will Zahradnik
Key to making playoffs: To make a playoff run, the Lions must continue to get improved play on both sides of the ball and develop a solid running game to complement the strong arm of Marcus Orr at quarterback. Getting off to a strong start in non-district games could be a big confidence-builder for Linn-Mar.
Games to watch: Linn-Mar’s second district game at Iowa City West could be an indicator of just how much the Lions have grown. West all-state QB Marcus Morgan will be a challenge for any defense and Linn-Mar will have to be at its best to slow him down. Then, the season finale against Pleasant Valley could be a battle for a district title.
Aug. 30 — Dubuque Senior
Sept. 6 — No. 9 Ceda Rapids Kennedy
Sept. 12 — at Cedar Rapids Jefferson
Sept. 20 — at Urbandale
Sept. 27 — Davenport North
Oct. 4 — at No. 6 Iowa City West
Oct. 11 — Muscatine
Oct. 18 — at Iowa City High
Oct. 25 — Pleasant Valley