The T-shirts and photos and books of statistics a high school athlete collects represent memories more than anything.
Zade Podhajsky lost most of his.
With the help of his North Tama football teammates, Podhajsky has collected new shirts and memories this fall. Better ones.
The Redhawks (8-1) have a winning record for the first time since 2012, are ranked No. 4 in Class A and travel to Mason City Newman in the first round of the playoffs at 7 p.m. Friday.
The start of the postseason comes about six months after a fire at the Podhajsky family home. The important thing: no one was hurt. But possessions — memories — were lost.
“There’s no way to fix it but to rebuild and move on,” Podhajsky said. “I think it gave me something to work toward.”
North Tama football did the same thing.
The smallest high school playing 11-player football faced more uncertainty when head coach Austin Kelly left for a position at Iowa City Liberty last spring. Podhajsky was among the players chosen to be part of the panel that interviewed three finalists for the open job. One coach accepted, then took another job a few days later.
“We really didn’t know what to do,” Podhajsky said. “Some of the guys, myself included, I wouldn’t say we lost faith necessarily, but we kept pushing ourselves even harder. That kind of drove us.”
That’s when Tom McDermott stepped in.
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The Iowa Football Coaches Association Hall of Famer had been an assistant for the team for three different stints — including the 2010 state championship team — but hadn’t been head coach since his 87-48 run from 1973-87.
“I wasn’t planning to do that,” said McDermott, who has also been North Tama principal and superintendent in the past. “I said, ‘Well, I don’t want to leave our juniors and seniors hanging.’ So I decided I’d give it a shot and see how things went.”
McDermott, who helped Podhajsky collect stat books and other scrapbook material he lost in the fire, knew he wouldn’t have to be a lone leader with this year’s senior class.
Podhajsky led the charge in the weight room and along the line. Running back Tyler Morrison (1,146 yards, 22 TDs) is a three-year starter and leads by example. Hale Hulme, who splits time with Skylar Staker at quarterback while both play a number of different positions, has the mind to see what is and what is not working on the field.
They were fourth-graders in 2010 when North Tama went 14-0 and claimed the Class A state championship. The Redhawks followed that up with playoff runs in 2011 (9-2) and 2012 (10-2) as well, but cratered to a combined 10-35 record over the last five years.
Podhajsky said he saw this team’s potential to return to prominence and his thinking was correct.
After beating North Mahaska 69-6 in the season opener for the program’s 500th win, the Redhawks blasted Lisbon 49-0, their first of four shutouts this year. Then came the real eye-opening stretch, starting with a 33-26 victory over Wapsie Valley. A 24-21 overtime loss to No. 1 Hudson followed, but NT rebounded with one-possession wins over tough district foes East Buchanan (7-6) and Grundy Center (34-26) the next two weeks.
“I kind of took it personally when somebody would kind of poke fun at us or whatever,” Podhajsky said. “The community is starting to get back into it … It’s amazing how fast heads turn around town, and not just around town but around the wider area.”
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A community that helped up Podhajsky’s family when they needed it most has been there on Friday nights, too. This week in Mason City, they’ll have brand new red playoff shirts to show off.
“We’ve had, all year long, tremendous support from our community and our parents,” said McDermott, who hasn’t decided on his future in coaching. “The T-shirts and sweatshirts and all the hoopla and all that goes with it had been missing over the last few years, so that’s nice to see.”