As his team toes the Class 4-A playoff high wire, Dowling Catholic coach Tom Wilson draws comfort from the safety net protecting his defense.
While he looks at all of the eye-catching pieces on his football roster, Waukee’s Scott Carlson admires the adhesive that holds everything together.
Valley coach Gary Swenson has a cache of weapons on offense, but his Swiss Army knife is one of the most valuable.
And as he searches for a way to slow 4-A’s biggest offensive steamroller, Ankeny coach Brad Zelenovich is leaning on a linebacker with a hard-hat attitude.
Meet Nick Wilson, Kyle Boulanger, Blake Salsbury and Ross Simms. They aren’t the most visible players on the last four central Iowa teams remaining in the 4-A bracket. But they’re vital to game plans their coaches are devising for Friday night’s state quarterfinals.
Dowling’s safety net
Ankeny mauled its way to eight consecutive victories, smashing opponents with an offense that ranks second on the 4-A rushing chart. The Hawks are averaging 301 yards on the ground, but defenses can’t dismiss the pass, either, which puts stress on opposing safeties.
“(Nick Wilson is) kind of a guy in limbo,” said Dowling coach Tom Wilson, no relation to his starting free safety. “Once they start their play-action, it’s pretty tough for him. Having him patrol the middle of the field is critical for us in both defending the run and the pass.”
The good news for the Maroons: The senior is adept at both.
Nick Wilson started the final seven games at quarterback for Dowling two years ago after classmate Ryan Boyle suffered a season-ending knee injury. When Boyle returned the following summer, the Maroons slid Wilson to a position he had never played.
By the end of last season, Wilson was an Des Moines Sunday Register Elite all-state pick.
“He’s a smart kid, he’s a great kid, football means a lot to him and he’s been really the ultimate team guy,” Tom Wilson said. “He was a good quarterback for us and could’ve been a very good quarterback, but he bought into the team concept and what was best for the team and has evolved into a tremendous safety.”
The glue at Waukee
On a roster dotted with all-state picks, headline-grabbing playmakers and Division I-bound talents, Boulanger has stood above everyone else during the past two years when it comes to the biggest in-house award.
The senior linebacker is a two-time winner of the Warrior Award, an honor bestowed upon the player who best embodies the program’s standards on and off the field.
“When people talk about our team, they talk about a lot of guys, but he’s the glue who holds it all together on the defensive side of the ball,” Carlson said. “I think that’s going to be a huge part of any success we have on Friday night — him being able to hold down the middle and slow down that running game of Valley’s.”
The Tigers are throwing the ball better than they have in years with strong-armed sophomore Rocky Lombardi at quarterback, but Carlson said Valley’s offense still revolves around its ability to establish a power running game.
“It can really be overwhelming,” he said. “To be able to stop Valley, I think you have to be able to stop the run.”
Valley’s Mr. Versatility
There were moments early in the season when Salsbury would catch himself carrying out someone else’s assignment — and it’s understandable why.
The senior plays receiver, tight end and fullback for the Tigers. He spent his first two varsity seasons running routes and catching passes before Swenson asked him to carry the ball and serve as a lead blocker out of the backfield this year.
“It’s fun getting to do all the different things,” he said. “I get to be a part of all aspects of our offense.”
Salsbury is second on the team with 25 receptions and he’s tied for second with five rushing touchdowns. His versatility enables the Tigers to morph into different sets without changing personnel groups, or as Swenson puts it: “You’re never caught calling a play and then realizing you don’t have the right people on the field to execute the play.”
That flexibility could come in handy Friday night against Waukee.
“I think they have the best set of linebackers we’ll see without question — and I don’t think it’s close,” Swenson said. “So he’s going to have to block. In a two-back run game, the fullback usually ends up matched up versus linebackers. And he’ll also have to be able to be a threat in the passing game to take a little pressure off our wide receivers.”
Ankeny’s hard hat
Dowling leads 4-A in rushing, total offense and scoring. The Maroons are averaging more than 60 points per outing during their seven-game winning streak and they’re within 49 points of tying the 4-A record for points in a season set two years ago by Ankeny.
“They really stretch you sideline to sideline and they stretch you vertically,” Zelenovich said. “They make you fit things really well and we’re going to have to tackle really well.”
The Maroons put stress on all 11 defensive players, but perhaps none will feel the burden more than Ankeny’s outside linebackers, who will be asked to defend Dowling’s short passing game as well as its power option attack with quarterback Ryan Boyle.
“They want to play hard-nosed football and try to run it,” Simms said. “They’re obviously going to pass, too, because they’re good at both, but we’re expecting a little bit more run.”
At least that’s what Simms hopes. Ankeny’s leading tackler said he’d much rather be tracking down ball carriers in the middle of a scrum than covering receivers in space.
“I’m a run stopper,” he said. “I feel like I can get down in the gap, put my nose in there and try to mix it up and try to be a problem for the offense. I really like being in the trenches.”
FRIDAY’S CLASS 4-A GAMES
ANKENY (9-2) VS. DOWLING CATHOLIC (10-1)
This game will be played at Williams Stadium in Des Moines. No. 7 Ankeny dropped two games by a grand total of four points during the first three weeks of the season. The Hawks haven’t lost since, running off eight consecutive victories behind one of the state’s top ground games. Ankeny rolled up 408 yards rushing in Monday’s 42-28 second-round win against Council Bluffs Lewis Central. Riley Newberg ran 34 times for 201 yards and two touchdowns, quarterback Cole Whitaker logged 25 carries for 194 yards and a pair of scores and receiver Josh Davis scored twice. No. 4 Dowling has crushed everything in its path since a 24-21 loss to Valley in Week 4. Dowling is averaging more than 60 points per outing during its seven-game winning streak, thanks to an offense that leads Class 4-A in rushing, total offense and scoring. Twenty-four different players have scored touchdowns for the Maroons this season. Quarterback Ryan Boyle has accounted for 2,379 yards and 27 touchdowns and has only thrown one interception this season.
VALLEY (10-1) AT WAUKEE (10-1)
No. 3 Valley hardly looked like a title contender on opening night when it suffered a 28-6 loss at Waukee, but the team has been climbing the 4-A ladder ever since. The Tigers have won 10 straight and they’ve shored up problem areas from Week 1. Aside from a 24-21 win against then-No. 1 Dowling Catholic, nobody has come within three touchdowns of the Tigers during their winning streak. Valley’s defense has allowed 23 total points in its last six games while the offense has picked up speed behind sophomore quarterback Rocky Lombardi, running back Drew Gray and receiver Dominique Dafney. It took almost two months, but No. 5 Waukee has all of the pieces back together again. Waukee stomped Southeast Polk 41-17 in a second-round performance that might have been the most complete outing of the season for the Warriors. Trevor Allen ran for 239 yards, Pat Gray chipped in with 81 yards rushing and two touchdowns and Waukee’s starting defense allowed just a field goal. The Warriors are aiming for their first 4-A semifinal appearance.
IOWA CITY WEST (7-4) AT
CEDAR RAPIDS WASHINGTON (11-0)
Cedar Rapids Washington’s rise to the top of the 4-A rankings included a 28-0 victory in Week 3 against Iowa City West. The Trojans started 3-3 with losses to teams in the quarterfinals — Cedar Rapids Washington, Valley and Bettendorf — but they’ve won four of their last five, highlighted by a 38-34 win against No. 6 Linn-Mar in the second round.
NORTH SCOTT (9-2) AT BETTENDORF (11-0)
Justice O’Conner scored two of his 18 rushing touchdowns in Week 7 when second-ranked Bettendorf handed North Scott a 42-26 loss. The Bulldog defense hasn’t allowed more than a touchdown during its last three outings, but Bettendorf will have to contend with receiver Ricky Grimes, who has 10 touchdown grabs this season.
— Andy Hamilton<QR>