Dowling Catholic quarterback Ryan Boyle, right, worked with teammates during football practice at the high school in West Des Moines on Tuesday afternoon August 12, 2014.
The hard-to-fathom opinion hovered around the Dowling Catholic football program last fall as the Maroons marched toward a state championship.
Strong as the Maroons were in their 14-0 title run, impressive as they were during a 44-13 demolition of Cedar Rapids Xavier in the Class 4-A title game, there were neighboring coaches who feared Dowling might be even harder to beat this season.
“This was really the year they were looking toward,” Valley coach Gary Swenson said. “I think they’re going to be better this year than they were last year. I think they’re going to be scary.”
It’s not as if Dowling completely dodged a graduation toll. The Maroons lost 16 starters off last year’s squad, including speedy playmaker Rico Gafford, disruptive defensive lineman John Swisher and linebacker Jake Lewton, all three elite all-state picks.
But if there’s one squad in the state capable of maintaining speed after absorbing such a hit, this might be it.
“We don’t return a ton of kids,” Dowling coach Tom Wilson said. “But what we do return is high quality.”
Dowling still has quarterback Ryan Boyle, the Iowa recruit who looked college-ready during a dazzling six-touchdown performance in last year’s title game. The Maroons still have Northern Illinois recruit Max Morris and Jo Jo Jok, arguably the state’s best defensive end tandem.
They still have Division-I prospect Nick Wilson at free safety, offensive linemen Elijah Swehla and Cole Wymore to protect Boyle and open holes for running back Isaiah Patton, and they still have Nick McLellan to boot field goals.
The Maroons think they have a strong enough supporting cast, too, to fill in the depth-chart gaps created by graduation.
“I think there are kids who are ready for their chance,” Tom Wilson said. “There are other kids who are question marks, and we don’t know as much about them until we get them in those game situations. And that won’t happen until we play a few games.”
There’s hardly a break-in period for Dowling at the start of the season. The Maroons open with a title rematch against Xavier before tangling with the teams they faced in the semifinals and quarterfinals, Valley and Waukee. That leaves little room for error in the season’s first month for a team with its sights set on 14 wins.
“Our one goal is to be perfect and win state again,” said Boyle, who accounted for 3,165 yards and 45 touchdowns as a junior. “I really believe this team has the potential to do what we did last year.”
First, though, the Maroons need to find replacements for their biggest graduation losses. Dowling might not have another Gafford, a state sprint champion who led the team in receiving, started at cornerback and returned punts and kickoffs, but Boyle believes the Maroons have enough receivers with complementary skill sets that opponents will respect the passing game.
Swisher led the state with 17 sacks and piled up 30 tackles for loss, but Morris and Jok have each packed on nearly 15 pounds and could be harder to handle this season.
“We certainly hope (we’re better this year), but we don’t want to go into the season with the mindset that we’re better than everyone else, because that will get us beat,” Morris said. “We don’t want to be (complacent). That’s what we’ve been preaching.
“I feel like we’ve worked harder than we did last year. We have this hungry mindset like we didn’t win state.”
Aug. 29 vs. C.R. Xavier, 7:30
Sept. 5 at Urbandale, 7
Sept. 12 vs. Waukee, 7:30
Sept. 19 at W.D.M. Valley, 7:30
Sept. 26 vs. C.B. Lewis Central, 7:30
Oct. 3 vs. Sioux City East, 7
Oct. 10 at Johnston, 7:30
Oct. 17 vs. D.M. Roosevelt, 7:30
Oct. 24 at D.M. North, 7:30