Ames has struggled this fall, but it can certainly weather a storm.
The preseason No. 3 in Class 4A lost its first three games and its top two quarterbacks to knee injuries in the process. With an unlikely third-stringer and a couple high-scoring district wins, the Little Cyclones (3-5, 2-2) are still somehow on the verge of an eighth straight playoff berth.
“It hasn’t all been about injuries,” Ames coach Bruce Vertanen said. “We’ve been inconsistent, up-and-down, and we’re still searching. But I think we’ve shown at times that we can play really good football.”
Expectations this summer soared over an offense that returned enough talent to rival Ames’ 2013 team that finished 11-1 and led the entire state in total offense.
Week 1 landed with a thud. Starting quarterback Michael Frankl tore his right ACL just two passes into his senior season, after he was supposed to build on the 2,351 passing yards and 31 total touchdowns he scored last year.
Junior backup Ethan Hahn got the start in Week 2 and nearly upset then-No. 2 Cedar Falls, but was afflicted by the same injury after three passes in Week 3.
“You can’t replace experience,” Vertanen said.
“Those losses shook our team up in Week 1 and Week 3.”
The job slid to sophomore Joe Evans. And the converted linebacker hasn’t let it go, leading the Little Cyclones to three wins and a likely three-seed out of District 1. Without any preseason preparation at quarterback, Evans has paced Ames by completing 66 percent of his passes for 1,068 yards, 15 touchdowns and just four interceptions, and rushing for 340 yards and four touchdowns.
“Michael was a preseason all-state quarterback and Ethan was one of the fastest kids on our team,” Vertanen said. “It took us some time to get Joe in the mix and move things to his skill set.
“Every week we learned more about Joe and what he’s able to do and we’ve been very pleased.”
A 1-4 start has had to be thrown in the rear-view mirror for a program desperate to keep its season on track. So Vertanen stuck with his offensive system and asked other veteran players to pick up the slack.
“We had a pretty serious meeting five weeks ago, wondering if we stay the course or do we reinvent the offense?” Vertanen said. “We stuck with what we do and I think it’s been a good choice.”
It worked in district play, where the Little Cyclones have lost to the two teams tied for first place, No. 6 Ankeny and Southeast Polk. They’ve alternated wins with those defeats, topping Sioux City North (57-21) and Des Moines East (49-35) last week.
“I know we won and that they’ve had a tough year, but I thought Ames was the most physical team we’ve faced,” Ankeny coach Rick Nelson said. “They brought it to us, and that’s about what we’re expecting with Southeast Polk.”
Senior receiver Colby Shane has eased Evans’ transition into the offense with 59 catches for 763 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. The defense has forced 17 teams, despite youth and a difficult early season schedule.
And the team got an early sense of celebration in last week’s home finale, trotting Frankl out on the field – many yards away from the play – in full uniform and leg brace to share in senior night.
“That meant everything to me,” Frankl told the Ames Tribune. “Honestly, it’s been a frustrating season for me personally, but being out there was amazing.”
In a season that could have so easily blown away, the Little Cyclones have hung tough and are four quarters from securing third-place at Council Bluffs Thomas Jefferson (1-7, 1-3).
“What I’m most proud of with this team is that I think anyone that comes to watch us play would not be able to guess our record,” Vertanen said. “We’re playing extremely hard and giving great effort every game and I believe we’ve earned the respect of every opponent.”