VAN HORNE – The Benton Community Bobcats are determined to put their best feet forward, but know they will stub a few toes in the process.
The Bobcats are ready to hit the ground running, though.
Benton opens its prep football season Friday with a home contest, featuring a new stadium with Field Turf, against Class 3A rival Vinton-Shellsburg in Van Horne. Opening kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. with live coverage of the game beginning at 7 p.m. on KCRG 9.2.
“I think what you’re going to see from us is a team, no matter where we start, that will really improve as the year goes on,” Bobcats Coach Clay Anderson said. “We’ll mature more. We’ll get better at what we’re doing.”
Benton experienced a slow start last season in Anderson’s first season as head coach. The Bobcats improved and finished 4-5, ending with three straight wins. The personnel is significantly different but the approach is similar.
“We have a great attitude,” Anderson said. “The kids are working really hard.”
The Bobcats have their work cut out for them. They lost at least 10 top players from last year’s squad, including the leading rusher, quarterback, leading receivers, top two leading tacklers and lineman Robert Rathje, who is a freshman on the University of Northern Iowa football team.
The team is up for the challenge, but it will be continuous learning experience for a program that has grown from 40 players in ninth through 12th grade last year to 53 this year. A key will be remaining positive. Many of the players will get their first varsity action Friday.
“They don’t get everything we’re doing yet, but they’re trying,” Anderson said. “We’ve told them if you make a mistake make it a hard mistake and we see a lot of hard mistakes. We can handle that. Things are going to take time. We’re all going to have patience.”
Confidence is blended with the realism that inexperience and youth will produce some rough stretches.
“We should be able to win most of our games,” senior center Jake Deeds said. “We can put up a fight against all the teams and that’s our goal.”
The starting lineup will include a heavy dose of sophomore players. Anderson admitted playing a senior-dominated team will cause the Bobcats problems. Despite a lack of physical maturity, since the Bobcats only have five seniors, they believe they can match any opponent’s skills.
“We’re smaller, but I think we match the talent from last year,” junior linemen Quinton Taylor said. “We can match the athleticism , too.”
Deeds, Taylor, fullback Jake Peterson, linebacker Matt Gessner and safety Noah Fisher are among the top returners for the Bobcats.
Taylor, 6-foot-2 and 275 pounds, was an all-district offensive tackle last year as a sophomore. Deeds started half the season at offensive tackle in 2011 and will move to center this season. They will provide leadership up front as the Bobcats will rely on the running game until they iron out personnel at a depleted quarterback spot.
“We just get the kids in line,” Taylor said about working with less experienced players. “We help them out.”
Anderson said Taylor has the ability to take over a game and is one of the best players in the area
“He’ll be on the field until he can’t be on the field anymore. He’s just a horse and a great player,” Anderson said. “Deeds is a super smart guy. You like that in your center.”
The highly anticipated season opener will be played at a brand new stadium on Field Turf, which will also be used for soccer. The project is expected to finish Thursday. The stadium features new lights, bleachers, track, concessions, bathroom and gathering space. The only things remaining from the only facility is the scoreboard and press box.
“We’re pretty pumped up about it,” Taylor said. “It’s pretty nice out there. We got some pretty big stands and hopefully we can get them all filled up.”
A ribbon cutting is set for between the freshman and varsity games. Benton breaks in its new field against the rival Vikings, who were 3-6 last year. Plus, the teams will play on live television.
“It will add a lot to the team,” Deeds said, “and get us pumped up for the first game so we can win it.”
Anderson said the facility is as good as a 3A program can have, and exemplifies the community’s support of all activities at Benton. In addition to the stadium, renovations were made to the school’s gym and auditorium.
“The commitment here from our district is unbelievable,” Anderson said. “Our kids are really excited to get out there and play on it.”