Prep Football

Iowa high school football rewind: Benton Community rallies around cancer-stricken head coach

Jeff Zittergruen made it to all 10 games, including first round of playoffs

(The Gazette)
(The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — His voice was raspy, he wasn’t feeling the best, but at least he was there. Just as he was for all 10 of his team’s games this season.

The Benton Community Bobcats gave first-year head football coach Jeff Zittergruen quite a ride this season. They won their Class 2A district, tying with West Marshall and Nevada but earning a tiebreaker that allowed them to get into the state playoffs and host a first-round game.

Benton lost Friday night to defending champion Monroe PCM, 34-8. It hurt but couldn’t dampen all that was accomplished.

“I’m so blessed to coach these guys,” Zittergruen said. “They are great kids, we definitely are a family. We have 11 seniors that have given a ton to this program. I value everything that has gone on this year.”

Zittergruen, promoted from his assistant’s job, found out last spring he had thyroid cancer. A surgeon removed the gland but more cancer was found in his neck just as practice was about to begin in August.

Radiation treatments zapped his strength and energy and intermittently kept him from being able to teach and attend practices throughout the fall. But he made it to each and every game.

His Bobcats won eight of them.

“It definitely gave me something to keep my mind off things,” Zittergruen said. “Good support system at home. My wife has been amazing, my kids and coaching staff, for sure. There are days where I just can’t physically do it, and they pick up the slack, and we don’t miss a beat. Definitely everyone around here has been amazing with it.”

Zittergruen’s assistant coaches are Casey Krull, Sean Bredl, Josh Hoeck, Zach Samson, Garrett Albers and Kory Winsor. Give them a ton of credit.

Same goes for the players. They rallied around their stricken coach, and it made them a better team.

“Really, it brought us all together,” said senior wide receiver-defensive back Turner Schroeder. “Our chemistry was so good. Him missing school, missing practices ... it is great to have him here on Friday nights, because we know how tough it is for him. He battles every day, so we’ve got to do the same, go to work every day.”

A look back

 Zach Greiner rushed 16 times for 169 yards and added 7.5 tackles in North Tama’s 16-6 first-round win Friday night over Central Decatur in Class A. Gabe Kopriva and Skyler Staker had the touchdowns for the third-ranked Redhawks (10-0).

 Zach Opheim rushed for 192 yards as Grundy Center beat Belle Plaine, 28-14, in Class A. The teams played in the regular-season opener way back in August, with GC winning (also at Belle Plaine), 29-12. Those were two of the Plainsmen’s three losses this season. Lisbon was the other.

 Noah Beck rushed for 301 yards and four touchdowns, but it wasn’t enough for BGM, which dropped its Class A first-rounder to Earlham, 50-34. The Bears end their season at 8-2.

A look ahead

Eleven teams from The Gazette area remain alive in the playoffs: Cedar Rapids Kennedy in Class 4A, Solon and Western Dubuque in 3A, Waukon, West Liberty and Williamsburg in 2A, West Branch and Iowa City Regina in 1A, MFL MarMac and North Tama in A, and HLV and Turkey Valley in 8-Player.

Urbandale is the quarterfinal team with the worst RPI, that a 12 in Class 4A. Then it’s Iowa City Regina (11 in 1A) and Williamsburg (11 in 2A).


Ankeny Centennial is the team with the highest RPI not to survive the first round. The Jaguars were a 4 in 4A.

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