MARION – After a taming start, the Linn-Mar Lions football team has roared back.
The winless first third of the season has been followed by victories in two of the last three games, moving Linn-Mar back into postseason berth contention.
The Lions face longtime for Cedar Rapids Prairie for a Mississippi Valley Conference Valley Division contest Friday at Linn-Mar Stadium. The game is Homecoming for the Lions.
A slow start was expected since all about a few starters from last season graduated. Linn-Mar (2-4, 2-2) has improved and the recent success is a product of the players’ determination and devotion.
“It’s really starting to come around and they’ve been great in practice,” Linn-Mar Coach Bob Forsyth said. “I know one thing, when you’re struggling, if you still have their attention and they’re still coming to get coached and worked you’re going to have a chance.”
Easier said then done with a team dominated by inexperienced varsity starters, who had suffered tough losses early. The Lions were edged by Dubuque Senior, 39-36, in triple-overtime. Linn-Mar held a late seven-point lead against Waterloo West before losing 27-14. It tested their resolve.
“It was hard, for us seniors especially,” Lions senior quarterback Rhys Davis said. “Obviously nobody wanted to start 0-3, but I think it hurt the worst because we knew we were better than that start. We knew our record didn’t show the talent and work ethic we had on this team.”
The turning point came Week 4 when the Lions dropped rival Cedar Rapids Washington, 24-21, in overtime for their first victory. The Lions overcame a late deficit. Sometimes you have to learn how to win.
“I think there’s no doubt about it,” Forsyth said. “Every year, every team is different. The personality or chemistry is different. Some teams get going early, some teams take awhile and some teams never get going.”
Linn-Mar has been one of the top Metro schools the last few seasons, posting an unbeaten regular season last year. The win against Washington proved this team could win and win a big game.
“It really did catapult us,” Davis said. “We didn’t necessarily know what it took to win, so when we finally did it, we look back and say that’s how we do it.”
The Lions were competitive in a loss to fifth-ranked Cedar Falls and then whipped Dubuque Wahlert, 49-6, last week. Davis said he has seen the progress by his teammates and how they have meshed when sharing the “down but not out” and “backs against the wall” mentality.
“It speaks to the character of the team and the guys we have on this team,” Davis said. “They are willing to keep fighting, working and working as hard as they can to keep getting better.”
Forsyth said the season has been a learning experience for the players and coaches, who have tried to find the right mix of personnel, how to motivate them and structure practice. Players have responded to the idea that sometimes is not just X’s and O’s, but a game of attitude, effort and toughness, according to Forsyth. The process leads to the fulfillment, frustration and challenge of being a coach.
“We’re still trying to figure out how to get better,” Forsyth said. “The answer for all this stuff isn’t in a book anywhere. You can’t just open to Chapter 3 and it says this is what you’re supposed to do.”
Davis has been a key component of success for Linn-Mar. The 6-foot-3, 180-pound quarterback has been an instant leader offensively. Davis has amassed more than 1,000 total yards, leading the Lions with 550 passing and 496 rushing yards.
“He stepped into that role on a team without a lot of experience players,” Forsyth said. “It’s a tough situation to step into, but he’s come everyday to try to get better and he did it everyday in the summer to get better. A lot of that is paying off for him.”
Davis had big shoes to fill, replacing all-stater Mark Atwater, who is contributing at quarterback for Coe College this year. He said he is competitive and embraced the hard task, and that he has benefitted from the things he learned from Atwater.
“It’s definitely has had its ups and downs, especially in a sport like this when you go 0-3,” Davis said. “People don’t say ‘Oh they’re 0-3, but they have a good quarterback’. You take your knocks. You take your lumps.”
When three wins could get you in the playoffs, the Lions know there is still work to accomplish. Linn-Mar’s opponents through six games own a combined record of 21-15. The slate doesn’t get easier with Prairie (3-3, 1-2), Iowa City High and No. 4 Cedar Rapids Xavier.
“We all know what is at stake,” Davis said. “Everybody knows we need to come out and execute and keep moving forward.”
The Hawks have surpassed their win total last year. They have an exciting offense led by quarterback Jace Hanna and weapons Demetrius Harper and Jarred Edmonds.
“Prairie, on film, is an excellent football team, offensively especially,” said Forsyth, who also complimented the Prairie defense. “They can hurt you with a lot of different things. It’s going to be challenging for us to stop them or slow them down.”