Their clover-cluttered practice field inevitably turns to mud each fall and the Des Moines Christian Lions are still years away from having a home stadium to themselves.
From a facilities standpoint, this is still the same relatively youthful program that got its start a decade ago. But the Lions — who bounced around, playing their home games at Dallas-Center Grimes and Urbandale, and now call Johnston home — are starting to build a residence in high school football’s elite neighborhood.
Des Moines Christian, which once charted the construction of its progress by its margin of defeat against Class A power Madrid — 74 in 2004, 50 in 2005, 35 in 2006 and 2007 — knocked off the Tigers 21-14 last week in one of the biggest victories in the program’s 11-year history.
“Every time we played them, it was a drubbing,” Lions co-coach Craig Carlson said. “We just got thumped. They’re such a machine. (Madrid coach) Randy (Hinkel) has been around a long time and he just reloads every year. He just plugs new bodies into the positions that are open year to year and keeps that train rolling.”
Staying power is perhaps the truest measure of a program’s strength. The best programs take on annual projects akin to installing new windows, but the foundation never cracks, the roof never caves in.
Few programs have been sturdier than Madrid, a playoff participant in 21 of the last 22 seasons under Hinkel.
From an outsider’s perspective, Des Moines Christian’s modest three-year playoff string seemed tenuous when all but four starters departed from last year’s 9-2 squad. The Lions lost their leading passer, their top three rushers, top three receivers and top four tacklers.
But the Lions knew something the 2011 stat sheet didn’t indicate — last year’s reserves were capable of keeping the victories coming.
“Last year, the scout team we had to run against, I think it was better than a lot of the varsity teams we played,” said senior Alex Toulouse, who ran for two touchdowns against Madrid, including a 1-yard score with 51 seconds remaining.
Des Moines Christian’s junior varsity team went undefeated in 2011, and Carlson said the Lions haven’t had to learn how to win this year.
“Our JV, I believe, could’ve kept up with a lot of varsity teams in our (district),” quarterback Ben Burkett said.
Still, Carlson wondered how the pieces would fit together against a rigid schedule. The Lions face another Class A test Friday at Woodward-Granger, which took Madrid’s place at No. 3 in the rankings. Then they move up to 1-A play, where they’ll take on Panorama of Panora and four district opponents coming off playoff appearances.
The schedule is one reason Carlson would shrug his shoulders when somebody would ask during the offseason what he expected from the Lions.
“I wasn’t sure what our kids could demonstrate,” he said. “I’ve learned more now that we’ve had camp, two-a-days and we’ve got Week 1 under our belt, but (prior to the season) I’d say we might win them all, we might lose them all or we might go .500, I just don’t know.”
The skeptics spoke loud enough to catch the attention of the Lions.
“There were a lot of doubters who were saying it’s going to be an off year,” Burkett said. “In my head, I’m thinking, ‘No, it won’t be at all.’ It’s almost a motivator to say, ‘Let’s go show ’em we have a program still.’ So far we’ve done that and we’re going to continue to do that.”