Ryan Boyle walked up to the new kid in the halls at Dowling Catholic last January, introduced himself and made a promise to Rico Gafford.
Of all the moments along the path to the state championship game, the most symbolic for the Maroons may have come when their healing quarterback reached out to welcome the do-it-all playmaker Dowling sorely needed.
“I befriended him and I told him I was going to pass to him a lot,” Boyle said. “And I told him we were going to win the state championship.”
So many pieces have come together for the top-ranked Maroons (14-0), who did win that state championship tonight. Dowling beat No.6 Cedar Rapids Xavier (12-2) in the Class 4-A title game at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls.
John Swisher suddenly emerged into one of the state’s best defensive tackles and brought a pedal-to-the-metal practice speed that spread throughout the roster. Nick Wilson adeptly transitioned to free safety after playing quarterback last season in Boyle’s absence. Underclassmen in supporting roles last year latched on to leadership positions this year.
Perhaps none of the reasons, though, were more paramount to the drive toward a championship than the return of a couple of top talents, the infusion of a few more and Dowling’s ability to keep all of its key players on the field this season.
“The overall health of our team is much better this year than what it was last year,” Dowling coach Tom Wilson said. “Everybody goes through some (injuries), but not the critical ones like those were.”
Boyle and offensive tackle Jake Kirvin suffered ACL tears that prematurely ended their 2012 seasons when the Maroons finished 9-3 and made a quarterfinal exit from the playoffs. As they healed, Dowling’s roster got stronger as well with the arrival of Gafford, defensive end Max Morris and offensive tackle Elijah Swehla.
Gafford, an all-state defensive back last year at East, said his search for more attention in the classroom and the opportunity to enhance his football future led him to Dowling. He became the big-play threat the Maroons needed after losing Matthew Haack, the leading receiver in 4-A last year, to graduation.
Though Gafford caught just two passes for 15 yards in Dowling’s 17-3 semifinal win against Valley, he made an across-the-board contribution with 99 return yards, a break-up of a pass in the end zone, and eight tackles, including a fourth-down stop of running back Tyus Mason for no gain.
Gafford was a big piece of Dowling’s four-win improvement from a year ago, but certainly not the only one.
Boyle accounted for 2,800 yards and 39 touchdowns before the championship game. Running backs Chase Dowell and Nate Christian have combined for 1,559 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns behind a mighty offensive line.
The Swisher-led defensive front, though, has perhaps been even more dominant. The top five defensive linemen have registered 60 tackles and 31 sacks. Swisher, who had 21 tackles total as a junior, leads the state with 17 solo sacks this season.
“When we go our best against best, it’s a pretty physical battle,” Tom Wilson said. “(Swisher) sets the tone.”
In the days leading up to the playoffs, Dowling’s 15-player Unity Council called a team meeting to restate the championship goal that Boyle and Gafford talked about last winter. Linebacker Jake Lewton, the guy Tom Wilson calls “the brains behind the organization” on defense, said the Maroons talked about what they had already accomplished and discussed the higher stakes of a one-game elimination tournament.
They talked about being 5-0 when it ended.
“I don’t know if I’d call it confidence,” Lewton said. “But we have the mentality that we’ve come this far, it’s our time.”