City High has built a standard of excellence in which making the football playoffs is widely expected.
The current Little Hawk squad has lived up to that standard — despite losing its final regular-season game Friday — and will host Muscatine tonight in a Class 4A first-round game at Bates Field.
City finished the regular season 7-2, the other loss coming against Cedar Falls by a 14-13 margin in the season opener. Squeezed in between that loss and Friday’s 35-14 setback against Cedar Rapids Kennedy were seven victories in which the Little Hawks performed like a perennial playoff contender.
Twenty years ago, another Little Hawk football team performed at a level to which all other City teams now aspire while cruising to the 1993 Class 4A state title.
“Without question, they did,” said current City coach Dan Sabers, who was the defensive coordinator for the 1993 team. “Not just for the players, but for the coaches as well.”
City finished 13-0 in 1993 and averaged nearly 44 points per game with star halfback/defensive back and future Iowa Hawkeye standout Tim Dwight leading the way.
Dwight hardly was a solo act, though, with a total of eight players earning all-state accolades in 1993. But he was a star among stars, and one of the fastest and most dynamic players in the history of Iowa high school football.
Dwight rushed for 2,113 yards and scored 43 touchdowns as a senior in 1993 despite often playing in only half of each game because the scores were so lopsided.
“I think without question the thing that sent us over the top was how tough Tim was,” Sabers said. “He was just a special, special football player, and that is what took that team over the top. He brought so much to the team as far as attitude and how to play the game. Even the coaches (fed off him). He was just so exciting to be around.
“I still remember back then, of course, we put some teams away pretty early in some cases throughout the regular season and we had to watch him to make sure he didn’t sneak back out there somehow. If he had to, he would have brought the water bottles out. He would do anything to get back out on the field. He really set a spark.”
The current Little Hawk squad also has a star senior running back leading the charge with Xavier Washpun having finished the regular season ranked third in Class 4A with 1,549 rushing yards.
However, he was held to a season-low 73 rushing yards Friday, whereas Kennedy shredded City for 363 rushing yards. The Cougars passed only three times, all of which were incomplete. But it didn’t matter with the running game so dominant against what had been a formidable Little Hawk defense.
“We knew going in that Kennedy was going to be a very good team,” Sabers said. “They got some momentum going and got us out of our rhythm. And when that happens in a football game, boy, you know it’s on. And it was clearly on.”
The current Little Hawk squad has been resilient this season, bouncing back from the season-opening loss to win seven games in a row, including a 14-7 victory over then-undefeated West High on Oct 11.
Muscatine is 5-4 and features senior running back Austin Moss, who rushed for 814 yards and scored 12 touchdowns in the regular season.
“The kids have battled throughout, so we feel good heading into Wednesday night,” Sabers said.
Seeds of success
Now a fixture in the playoffs, it hasn’t always been that way for City. The Little Hawks finished with a losing record in seven out of eight seasons from 1975 to 1982. City also had an eight-year stretch from 1962-69 when it finished with a losing record six times, including an 0-9 mark in 1968.
Larry Brown took over as coach in 1980, and by the middle of the decade, he had built the Little Hawks into a rising power. He had only one losing season in his final 18 years as head coach, retiring after the 2000 campaign.
A state title proved to be elusive, though, until Dwight’s senior year. The 1992 squad finished 10-1 and was loaded with talented players, including all-state quarterback and future Northwestern Wildcat Chris Hamdorf.
But it had the misfortune of facing in the second round of the playoffs another superpower in the 1992 Bettendorf Bulldogs, who were led by electrifying running back and future Iowa Hawkeye Tavian Banks.
City lost 31-28 in a game that lived up to the hype with Dwight and Banks making one big play after another in front of a standing-room only crowd at Bates Field. Bettendorf went on to win the second of back-to-back state titles in 1992, but Hamdorf was certain that Dwight and his cohorts would reign supreme in 1993.
“We were hoping that we would be the team that, obviously, won the state title in ’92 but couldn’t get that done,” Hamdorf said. “But I think the table was set for those guys in ’93 and they did very well. If they didn’t win the state title, then something went wrong.”
City won three state titles during a four-year stretch from 1993-96 while compiling a 47-4 record. Dan Sabers credits the 1993 squad for igniting a fire within the program that still burns today.
“There was a carry-over effect, no question about it,” Dan Sabers said.
Building the foundation
No player on the current Little Hawk team was alive in the fall of 1993 when City dismantled its competition one physical mismatch at a time.
City assistant coach Michael Sabers, who is Dan’s son, was only 7 at the time, but he still remembers certain things about the 1993 season and about the summer leading into it. The summer of 1993 was special because that’s when Dwight and all-state nose guard Corey Honore helped Dan Sabers build the house in which the Sabers’ family still lives.
Larry Brown also was part of the construction crew.
“That summer was pretty cool knowing Tim Dwight — especially Tim Dwight — and Corey Honore working all summer with us to help my dad build a house,” Michael Sabers said. “Geez, as a kid it’s pretty cool that not only are you building a new house, but any high school player to me and my brother were all-stars. But when you have Tim Dwight, I don’t need to mention what he did, and then Corey Honore was obviously one of the better players as well.
“And then Larry Brown, the legendary head coach, to have three heroes in our eyes at that time was pretty awesome.”
Dan Sabers said his two sons were in “hog heaven” knowing that Dwight and Honore were helping to build their new house. The crew not only finished the job on time in about six weeks, but they also had fun doing it thanks largely to Dwight’s energy.
“I still remember one time we were pouring a cement floor and we missed a spot,” Dan Sabers said. “And so Tim starts doing like monkey bars on the rafters over the floor to get himself over there and then reach down and just smoothed out a spot. It was just fun. It was a learning experience for those guys. We have great family memories of that, pictures and everything. I’ll stay in that house until I die, if the Lord is willing.”
Putting it in perspective
John Raffensperger has seen numerous high school football teams over the past half century, but the former Little Hawk teacher and legendary boys track coach puts the 1993 City squad on a pedestal by itself.
“I coached at Davenport Central in the early ’60s when Cedar Rapids Jefferson and Davenport Central were the No. 1 and 2 teams in the state every year and there were some great athletes,” Raffensperger said. “But this team in ’93 was just incredible when you figure they had eight all-state players. And I don’t know how you could ever have one team that had that many all-state players.
“Even if you didn’t have Dwight on that team, it would have been an incredible team. But with him, it just made it an impossible team to beat really. They had everything. They had a kicking game. They had big, huge linemen. They had fast defensive players and a lot of college football players that went on to play college football.”
Three of City’s games in 1993 ended by the 50-point mercy rule, including one at halftime. City was leading Cedar Rapids Jefferson 55-0 at halftime, spoiling Jefferson’s homecoming event that night.
“They had to have all the entertainment when everybody was leaving the stadium because the game was over,” Raffensperger said.