Prep Football

Linn-Mar football returns to playoffs under veteran coach Paul James

Former Cedar Rapids Washington coach leads second program to the postseason

Linn-Mar’s Marcus Orr (15) rushes the ball during a football game at Linn-Mar High School in Marion on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. (David Harmantas/Freelance)
Linn-Mar’s Marcus Orr (15) rushes the ball during a football game at Linn-Mar High School in Marion on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. (David Harmantas/Freelance)
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MARION — Marcus Orr recalled the team dinner before Linn-Mar’s season-opener against Dubuque Senior.

Third-year Linn-Mar Coach Paul James addressed the team and then questioned their goals. Orr said the players shared the same vision for the program that hadn’t reached the postseason since 2015.

“We all kind of came together and decided we wanted to be playing at the UNI-Dome by the end of the season,” Orr said. “It’s something we’ve had in the back of our minds for the whole year. The time has finally come, so it’s time to shine.”

The Lions secured their first winning season and first home postseason game in five years, hosting seventh-ranked Bettendorf in the opening round of the Class 4A prep football playoffs Friday night at Linn-Mar Stadium.

Linn-Mar claimed the 4A District 4 title, closing the regular season with a one-point loss to Pleasant Valley and posting a 6-3 record.

“We’re feeling good about what we accomplished and the kind of team we have,” James said. “We’re two points away from being 8-1. It is unfortunate things didn’t go the way we wanted Friday night, but that’s in the rearview mirror and we’re just looking ahead to Bettendorf.”

James will lead his second program into the playoffs. He made eight appearances with Cedar Rapids Washington.

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“I’m just trying to coordinate the coaches and players the best I can, enjoy the game, learn things and be successful,” said James, who is 108-73 through 18 seasons as a head coach. “Getting to the playoffs is awesome. It’s just having fun doing what I’m doing.”

When he left the Warriors and took over at Linn-Mar, James didn’t have a timetable set to get to this point. The goal was to develop players in his system.

“You always hope things will go as fast as possible,” James said. “In reality, this year, the kids really understood what we’re trying to do on both sides of the ball and things just started falling in place.”

Linn-Mar went from 2-7 to 3-6 in his first two season, suffering two one-point losses and two more by one score. This was the season upperclassmen were able to start conveying the expectations, standards and routines to underclassmen independently.

“There were definitely growing pains those first couple years,” Orr said. “The senior class wanted to change this program around. Those two or three years we’ve had to learn, now we’re all on the same page. We’re starting to learn to adapt to what coach is wanting us to do and it’s fitting in pretty well for us.”

After 37 years coaching football, the 65-year-old James continues to learn and implement new schemes. He said he strives to get better and evolve each season. He enjoys seeing players grow and execute different plays.

“We have an excellent group of seniors,” James said. “They’re intelligent. They work hard. They’re good kids. It’s not surprising things are going the way they are going.

“I just look forward to going to practice every day because the kids work hard. They’re committed to what they’re doing.”

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Orr has been one of those seniors James praised for being a strong leader. It is a role he has embraced, showing an ability to direct his teammates in practice and games and his football knowledge.

“It’s been pretty humbling for me,” Orr said. “It’s one of those things where you’ve got to realize everyone’s looking at you and no matter what you’re doing they have their eyes on you.

“You have to act the way you want them to be acting. If you get in a low point in the game, there is going to be low points in every game, you can’t get down. You have to stay positive and keep motivating everyone.”

The second-team all-district pick has spearheaded the Lions offense, passing for 1,657 yards and 18 touchdowns, despite missing two games to injury. He also has rushed for 128 yards and four scores. The only numbers that matter to him are in the team’s win column.

“I haven’t been focused on my stats this season,” Orr said. “I’ve been trying to put the team in a better situation and eliminate some of the mistakes I had last year.”

Bettendorf (7-2) provides a big challenge. The Bulldogs are a perennial power, winning seven state titles and reaching the playoffs for the 22nd straight season, which ranks third all-time in Iowa history.

The Bulldogs boats 4A’s second-best rusher in Harrison Bey-Buie, who has 1,551 yards and 27 TDs. Bettendorf has complemented the run game with a pass attack that has tallied more than 1,250 yards.

“We just have to try to contain them,” James said. “I have a feeling, hopefully, it will be kind of an old Mississippi Valley Conference-type tough contest where two teams are slugging it out. I think both teams have some offensive firepower where it ends up being the team with the ball at the end.”

Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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