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Redhawk football braces for challenging 2019 season

August 16, 2019
CJ Eilers - Editor ( , Traer Star-Clipper

2018 Record: 8-2 (L to Newman Catholic in Playoffs)

Head Coach: Tom McDermott

2018 proved to be quite a roller coaster year for the North Tama football program. In the spring, coach Austin Pink left the program for the newly-christened Liberty High School. Longtime assistant and former head coach Tom McDermott would step up to lead the team for the first time since 1987. A long summer full of installs and training in the weight room would bear fruit in one of the most successful regular seasons for the Redhawks in recent years, despite competing in arguably one of the toughest Districts in Class A football in the state. The Redhawks reached the playoffs for the first time since 2012 and looked poised for a dominant win over Newman Catholic in the first round as they reached halftime up 21-0. Yet a victory was not in the cards as the host team would come back to force overtime. Controversy ensued on the final North Tama drive that left Zach Greiner dazed and confused.

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"I think Coach put it perfectly in practice when I say I know I shouldn't, but I do think about it every day," Greiner said. "It's what we left out there, what we could have done that hurts the most. Looking ahead at what happened in that State championship game and what we did to (eventual Class A champions) Hudson at Homecoming, it really stunned everyone. For me, I felt I had to take that feeling when I go to installs and weight room even on the days I don't want to go. I just have to remember how I felt that day, and it's heartbreaking."

Deep, talented and experienced after several losing seasons, the Redhawks would finish 8-2 on the season with losses to Hudson and Newman Catholic coming in overtime.

"I believe our overall leadership, positive attitude and confidence led us to the successful season we had," McDermott said. "We were as successful as anyone imagined and I feel we could have been even more successful. Both games we lost were ones we could have won. We're hoping we can duplicate the same type of chemistry on this year's team."

Gone are notable seniors such as quarterback Hale Hulme, three-year starter Tyler Morrison after posting 1224 yards in 2018, leadership in Zade Podhajsky and Chase Morrison. However, the cupboards are far from bare for the Redhawks under McDermott's second year back at the helm. With familiarity and routine in his pocket, McDermott has seen a productive preseason emerge this summer.

"Obviously our guys know a lot more about what we are expecting, the type of offense/defense we're running," McDermott said. "We're going to continue emphasizing the run game while we try to throw in a little bit more this year. This is a running team, and I believe that's what you have to do to win in small high school football."

Two quarterbacks in senior Skyler Staker and sophomore Gabe Kopriva will compete for snaps this season with Hulme graduated. Staker shared the position last season, completing 49 percent of his passes for 609 yards, also rushing for 113 yards on 29 attempts. Kopriva enters his second season as a Redhawk with 183 rushing yards on 16 attempts, yet 54 yards on one throw all season.

"Skyler is the more powerful runner, more experienced at quarterback," McDermott said. "Gabe has good speed and very good athletic instincts. I feel we'll try what we can to use each of their strengths and give opposing teams an additional thing to prepare for instead of just one quarterback."

Whomever plays more as signal caller will have a growing receiving corp to throw to in Greiner (225 yards, nine receptions), senior Tate Payne (183 yards, four receptions) and Luke Pennell (18 yards, two receptions). Junior Noah Weber is the heavy favorite at starting running back after rushing for 104 yards on 17 carries and will have Greiner (167 yards on 30 carries) backing him up.

"We have depth at receiver, two good quarterbacks and guys who can play running back," McDermott said. "Our offensive line has three to four backup possibilities. Noah Weber has had a really good summer and good in our camp. I think he can be a good running back. Zach [Greiner] played some running back and we've worked him there some again. We may use Skyler Staker with Gabe Kopriva at quarterback. Those skill athletes can move around and play multiple positions while being very effective."

Graduating seniors also left positions open and depth lacking in several areas, yet led by All-District honorees such as Greiner (57.5 total tackles) and Cory Isenhower (35 total tackles), defense will continue to be a strength of this North Tama squad.

"Defensively, we want to be the aggressive team we've been in the past," McDermott said. "People won't see a lot of difference in how we play, just the personnel. Our secondary lacks depth notably and we'll be young there. We'll have to see who can step up. We feel our front eight-our linebackers, frontline, backups-are strong."

Both the offensive and defensive line will be key to a successful 2019 run, a fact senior Ryan McLean is well aware of. Coming off an All-District season himself, the lineman feels the team already well ahead of where they were at only a year ago.

"I feel were several steps ahead at this point than we were last year because we had a lot of installs back then and had to get used to offense," McLean said. "Everyone who's back is on the same page this preseason knowing what Coach wants to do."

McDermott stated he will need seniors such as McLean, Staker and others to continue to display leadership skills going forward if they wish to have any success in their second year in their current District.

"Ryan had a tremendous junior year as a four-sport athlete and can be as good as any linemen in our class or the state," McDermott said. "Sklyer has been a starter at linebacker for four years and obviously a leader. Luke Pennell and Tate Payne are skill kids we need good years from. Cory Isenhower is a tremendous lineman and will play on offense this year."

However talented the seniors prove to be, the Redhawks will look to younger players who may or may have not played reps on Dennis Field last season behind the 2018 seniors. McDermott named junior Jay Hill as one athlete to watch after sitting out varsity last season due to transferring to North Tama. Xander Bradley had reps as a sophomore, but will take on a more prominent role this season. Dylan Hosek will be the starting center and has "worked extremely hard in the weight room" according to McDermott. Several sophomores-Logan Rausch, Nathan Kucera, Adam Griener-are pushing for starting roles alongside Kopriva.

"We're going to miss guys like Tyler and Hale, but I feel we have an even better offensive line this season," Greiner said. "Our skill guys are really coming around this year. I believe our secondary will step up and this can be a great year. First and foremost, we're taking games one at a time. We can't look past anyone and I really don't care who they are. The ultimate goal is to return to the playoffs, but right now we're focused on winning our first game against North Mahaska."

Griener's mentality may prove necessary as District #7 remains loaded with talented teams, headlined by Wapsie Valley, Hudson, East Buchanan and Grundy Center, which the Redhawks will face in that order beginning September 13 and ending on October 4.

"My personal feeling is our District will be even stronger than last year," McDermott said. "Wapsie Valley is going to be better. Hudson will drop off a little bit, but will remain very good. Grundy Center has a new coach from a larger school to coach some good skill kids, including a tremendous young quarterback. East Buchanan will be better. I said it all the time last season: we have the toughest District in the state and I firmly believe we do again. I do believe we can play with any of those schools."

One game at a time. Filling in the leadership gaps left by last year's seniors. Maxing out potential over the season. All of these traits are ones McLean says he's more than happy to get behind in his final season.

"I feel as a leader I need to continue to keep everyone on the same page," McLean said. "It's about playing one step at a time and we can't overlook games. If we do, we'll lose games we shouldn't. For me, everyone doing their jobs and winning one game at a time is a successful season."

After watching last season end in heartbreaking fashion, McDermott has watched leadership form over the course of the camp from those who are hungry for success and returning to the state playoffs once again in 2019.

"Success is maintaining what we had going last season," McDermott said. "We've talked about taking that next step, but I've emphasized that doesn't mean we're going to win one more game or such. I want each individual player to take that next step. You were second team last season? There's no reason you can't be first team this season. You were a backup before? Step up and be a starter. How we do win vs loss, sometimes it falls out right. We were fortunate to come out of close games on top. Success is about being a better player, but also a better person and do the right things on the field, in school and around town. That's where the real success is."

The Redhawks will host North Linn on Friday, Aug. 23 for a scrimmage before opening their 2019 season at home against North Mahaska on Friday, Aug. 30. Their first road test will see them face off against Lisbon at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon on September 6.



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