From the stands, smash-mouth football seems simple.
Snap it, keep it, hand it off. Three yards and a cloud of dust.
It’s an identity that requires dedication and patience to build from within, something losing teams can’t always afford to do.
It’s also why Ankeny is 7-2, a district champion just two years after a high school split and one of the state’s seven playoff contenders that finished under .500 last season.
“From where we started to the place we’ve gotten to is pretty awesome for our kids,” Ankeny coach Brad Zelenovich said. “The improvement we’ve made being physical on both lines of scrimmage is what stood out to me. There’s size there, but it’s work in the weight room, and that stuff is developed over time.
“We cranked it up on Dec. 1 last year and challenged our guys to close the gap.”
HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL PLAYOFFS: Interactive brackets
MOBILE-FRIENDLY PLAYOFF PAIRINGS: First-round matchups for all six classes
The transition from a shaky 4-6 to a convincing 7-2 still leaves Ankeny short of the biggest leap in Class 4-A.
Linn-Mar of Marion went 2-7 in 2013, and only one loss was even close. Entering the first round of the postseason, the Lions are 8-1, ranked sixth and have only fallen to No. 1 Cedar Rapids Washington.
Quarterback Ryan Schmidt leads an offense that has rushed in 29 touchdowns — the same number as Ankeny — and should be home favorites for the first couple rounds.
Carlisle made the same jump in 3-A as Ankeny did, going from 4-6 to 7-2. A focus on running the football made comebacks against No. 5 Dallas Center-Grimes and No. 1 Pella tough, but the Wildcats have overpowered the rest of their competition.
Even without the emphasis on rushing, Collins-Maxwell/Baxter is physical up front. Unbeaten in 2-A, CMB won more games this season than in the last two combined.
“I thought we were pretty good the last couple years, but the ball didn’t bounce our way and we had injuries,” CMB coach Rob Luther said after clinching the district title on Oct. 17.
“We just knew we had to keep going to work. This team has great senior leadership, and we thought we might have something special early on.”
IKM-Manning joined CMB in the improvement from 4-5 to 9-0. First round visitor Madrid will force IKM-Manning to confront one of Iowa’s top smash-mouth attacks in the 1-A playoffs.
Class A lends itself to big turnarounds. The leftover schools still lining up for 11-player football are thrown together in a setup that favors a consistent formula in districts with high turnover. Woodbury Central of Moville took advantage of that with twins Landan and Levi Paulsen. The 6-foot-5, 290-pound Hawkeye recruits helped get the Wildcats from 2-7 to 8-1 in just one offseason.
Last, but hardly least in southern Iowa, is Bedford. Flipping the script from a 1-8 downer to an 8-1 celebration, No. 10 Bedford has completed this season’s largest turnaround in the state.
AROUND THE STATE
Independence secured its first playoff berth in 29 years with a 28-0 victory on Friday against Maquoketa. The coach who helped lead the Mustangs there wasn’t around for the celebration. The Independence school board terminated the contracts of coach Brandon Krusey and girls’ basketball coach Jessica Weber on Thursday, according to the Waterloo Courier. Assistant coach Justin Putz will lead the Mustangs in their playoff opener at Washington. … Don Bosco of Gilbertville on Friday became the third Iowa eight-player team to top the 100-point mark when the Dons thumped Tri-County 102-6. Don Bosco scored 46 points in the first quarter. Melcher-Dallas scored 116 points in 2005 to set the eight-player state record. … Lamoni’s Austin Tull will have at least one more opportunity to add to his record-breaking interception total. The junior enters the playoffs with 12 picks, which broke the eight-player single-season record that was jointly held by four players.
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AREA GAMES TO WATCH
NORWALK (5-4) AT BONDURANT-FARRAR (6-3)
Bondurant-Farrar’s fancy new scoreboard could get a workout. The Warriors are the highest-scoring 5-4 team in Class 3-A and put up 45 points per victory. Sophomore quarterback Brady Brandsfield has 1,769 yards passing and 19 touchdowns to four interceptions, numbers the Bluejays haven’t faced all season. Not that they’re outgunned — senior Grant Petersen has rushed for 2,065 yards and 23 touchdowns of his own.
GILBERT (7-2) AT HUMBOLDT (8-1)
With their playoff hopes hanging by a thread, the Tigers reeled off three straight shutout wins. They still have to hit the road in the first round, but the senior starters on defense — led by Mason Bulman’s 58.5 tackles — have shown they can stand up to the pressure. Humboldt has won five in a row since falling to district champion Carroll.