WEST DES MOINES, Ia. — Car windows are coated with the prevailing theme of the week in Dowling Catholic’s parking lot, painted bigger and brighter than player’s jersey numbers as practice winds down Wednesday.
Even spelled out, it’s not a real word — three-peat? — but on a dreary November evening when more than 300 other teams across the state have put away their pads, the idea provides pep and pride in white and maroon.
Not that it comes up in top-ranked Dowling’s drills, huddles or meetings.
“We treat this like we did the quarterfinal game or a game in Week 9,” Dowling Catholic coach Tom Wilson said. “It’s all about the process and preparation. If we go about those things in the right way, we feel like the winning and losing takes care of itself.”
The Maroons (12-0) can become the first Class 4A team to win three consecutive state championships if they beat Cedar Rapids Kennedy (13-0) in Cedar Falls on Monday night. The game was delayed due to a wintry weather in the Friday forecast.
That’s the goal. And Dowling doesn’t plan on being distracted by pressure, game plans, the UNI-Dome lights or literal window dressing.
“Things have definitely been more hyped because it’s a championship week, but Kennedy is going to bring it,” said junior running back Jacob Zachary.
“It’s all about being mentally focused. This has been a great opportunity.”
The 2015 playoff push has come without the fanfare or mind-blowing statistics of the past two seasons, but the Maroons have been dominant just the same.
The defense hasn’t allowed more than 21 points in a game all season. The offense has shared time at every position and still averaged nearly 400 yards per outing.
It all comes from experience, recent championship expectations and the desire to keep a deep roster healthy. Kurt Walding will be the lone quarterback Monday for the first time all season as co-starter J.T. Brown injured his knee in the second half last week.
Zachary’s 30 carries in the semifinals were easily an individual season-high, besting the 15 classmate Cole Deskin took way back in Week 5. Deskin is set to return from injury and split snaps with Zachary in Monday’s final.
“It was just what we needed at the time, and we needed first downs so we ran the ball,” Zachary said.
“I was in the huddle like, ‘Well, (Valley) knows the play, so I’m going to have to try and find something.'”
Tradition has been built with Dowling winning five titles since 2000, but even back-to-back trophies in the last two seasons didn’t exactly pave the way to a third.
Only two players taking the field for the Maroons on Monday were on the varsity roster in 2013; kicker Alec Hemann and linebacker Jacob Shedenhelm.
“Last year we had a team with more Division I athletes, but this year we don’t have as many of those guys and had to come together more as a team,” Shedenhelm said.
“Staying focused is the toughest thing. It’s easy to get off track. It’s a long journey, an extra five games to the season, and you start to kind of get tired and get bumps and bruises, but you’ve got to keep the team on track and prepare.”
They know they’re favored against the third-ranked Cougars, but the Maroons are locked in on the target. There are plenty of reasons why three straight titles has never been done before in Iowa’s biggest class.
“We were knocking on the door or winning for a good number of years, but to get over the hump, a lot of it is timing,” Valley coach Gary Swenson said. “Who else is good around the state? All you can do is worry about your team and hope you can make a run at it and be in position to win the semifinal and get into the finals. Once you get there, it’s really just about talent out on the field.
“All the teams left in the last few rounds are well-coached, so the players determine the outcome. It comes down to talent. Dowling has had back-to-back-to-back teams here loaded with good players and they’re well-coached.”
The Tigers, those ornery West Des Moines rivals, are the only other 4A team to advance to three consecutive championship games since the playoff format began in 1972.
Swenson’s squad raised the coveted hardware at the UNI-Dome in 2002 and 2003, but Bettendorf interrupted thoughts of that three-peat in the physical final of 2004.
Valley won again in its fourth straight title game trip in 2005.
“In 2004, we just ran into a kid named Pat Angerer that we couldn’t block,” Swenson said. “He’s still the most dominant individual high school player we’ve played against.
“I think our team this year would measure up against some of our championship teams. But there wasn’t a team like this year’s Dowling.”
The programs that have pulled off three in a row? Well, they’re Iowa’s elite. Decorah, Harlan, Solon and now Iowa City Regina have all owned swaths of the state’s high school football history.
Dowling Catholic can join them. But there are, at least, four quarters left to play.
“This whole season we’ve been looking forward to getting here,” Shedenhelm said. “Now the opportunity is right in front of us. We just have to go out there and grab it.”
It’s hard enough to win one state championship. With “3-Peat!” on the mind, that means Wilson and the senior Maroons want to take it one game at a time.
“There are so many variables that can go against you for a state title not to happen,” Wilson said. “And a lot of things have to fall in place to make it happen.
“Our preparation was so good going into the last two title games that I was very confident going in that we were going to perform at a high level. This team learned that process.”
Dowling Catholic and Cedar Rapids Kennedy are scheduled to kickoff at 7:06 p.m.
Close calls in Class 4A
Teams in the state’s largest class have come close to winning three consecutive championships before, but no one has pulled it off. Here are the six squads that have come the closest.
Bettendorf: Won back-to-back titles twice under coach Merv Habenicht in 1987-88 and 1991-92. In three of the four campaigns, the Bulldogs finished unbeaten. Bettendorf lost to eventual champion Linn-Mar in the semifinals of 1989 and to eventual champion Iowa City High in the quarterfinals of 1993.
Dowling Catholic: Coach Jim Williams led the Maroons into the playoff era with three straight title game appearances from 1972-74. Dowling finished as runner-up all three times, losing painfully close games: 6-0 and 37-32 at Kinnick Stadium and 14-10 at Iowa State’s old Clyde Williams Field. It got better with back-to-back titles in 2000-01, but Dowling didn’t make the playoffs in 2002.
Iowa City High: The Little Hawks owned the two seasons following Bettendorf’s second title push, winning 1993-94 in convincing fashion. Rival Iowa City West gave City High the closest game of those two playoff runs, and upset the bid for three-in-a-row in the semifinals of 1995. Coach Larry Brown closed out the run with another title in 1996 and runner-up finish in 1997.
Iowa City West: The Trojans and coach Reese Morgan capped back-to-back undefeated seasons in 1998-99 with an overtime win in the second final over Cedar Falls. Nate Kaeding scored a then-state record 93 points kicking in 1999. West didn’t make the playoffs in 2000.
Linn-Mar: Those two years between Bettendorf titles belonged to Linn-Mar. Winners in 1989-90, the Lions beat Sioux City Heelan and Newton in the finals, teams that now play in Class 3A. The shot at three straight titles ended in the first round of 1991.
Valley: The only program besides Dowling to even make it to three consecutive title games is Valley. Behind record-breaking rushing years from Jason Scales, the Tigers rolled to titles in 2002-03. Bettendorf and future NFL linebacker Pat Angerer dashed dreams of a three-peat with a 34-22 win in 2004. Coach Gary Swenson’s club rallied to win in 2005, duplicating City High’s run of three titles in four seasons nearly a decade earlier.
Tough to three-peat
Winning one championship is hard enough. Only 27 schools have managed to win back-to-back titles. Getting that third in a row? That’s even more exclusive company.
Harlan: 1982-84, 2003-05
Iowa City Regina: 2010-2014