BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Fort Madison Head football coach Tony Shiffman has one directive for his players when they travel to visit No. 1 Solon on Friday night – have some fun.
If you throw out records, schedules and history, Friday’s matchup is actually quite even on paper. Solon’s sophomore quarterback Cam Miller has completed 50 of 83 passes for 800 yards, 11 TDs, and one pick. The Hounds’ Lennon Barker is 53-107, 839 yards, 9 TDs, and three interceptions.
Fort Madison’s Alex Gully has 108 carries for 713 yards and 10 touchdowns and the Spartans’ top two running backs, Hunter Kula and Kendrick Harris, have 123 carries for 668 yards and eight touchdowns. Solon’s top two receivers have a combined 23 receptions for 410 yards and five touchdowns. Fort Madison’s top receiver Shance Redd-Donald has 27 receptions 470 yards and seven touchdowns.
But the Spartans are 5-0, ranked a top Class 3A in the state, average 39 points a game, and have outscored their opponents this year 182 to 14.
“Well, if we come out of there with a win, we’ll shock everyone. If we go out, play our butts off, and lose 28-14, look what we just did with one of the best team in Class 3A. So I’m trying to get across to the kids this week to just go out and have some fun. They’re gonna get first downs, they’re gonna complete passes and make plays, but like I’ve been saying all year, bounce back from it and make the next play.”
Shiffman will be the first to tell you over and over again that his offense has yet to reach its potential and there are other very good athletes that just haven’t seen their potential yet. But with the numbers similar on paper, you have to ask why Solon is having so much success.
“That’s a state-caliber defense,” Shiffman said. “That’s not taking away anything from their offense because that’s pretty good too, but it’s their defense that really sets them apart. They’ve had years and years of success and we’re just learning how good we can be. It’s their mindset and mentality of – ‘we’re a top team, we’re gonna act like a top team, and we’re gonna play like a top team.”
Redd-Donald leads Class 3A-District 5 in receptions, yards, and touchdowns, but the Spartans have three in the top 15. Gully leads the district in carries, yards, and touchdowns, but the Spartans have two in the top 10. Having so many offensive weapons makes isolating threats more difficult.
Shiffman said the Spartans won’t be as spread as the Hounds witnessed last week in Mt. Pleasant or against Oskaloosa, but Solon will put in a fullback on certain sets and they have good weapons.
“On paper it’s a great matchup. We’re in year one of building a program. They’re used to this and we’re not. We’ve been trying to preach to the kids go out, have fun, and build on positives.”
Shiffman said at the beginning of the season he said the team could win six games. At 3-2 with Solon looming, the Hounds will have to keep improving to get that goal. But the first-year coach said the team is still on pace to meet their goals for the season.
“At the beginning of the season I opened my big mouth and said we could win six games and we can still win six games. Last week was just a bad week. Mt. Pleasant took advantage of our mistakes,” Shiffman said. “But then I think – last year we were 0-5. We’re building, and hopefully will have a good season and then we’ll start working the hallways and getting some of the kids that should be playing and want to be playing, but just started thinking about it too late.”
He said he doesn’t even want to start thinking about next year with four games still to play and Solon is still very clearly in Shiffman’s sites.
“I’ve been in games like this before. I go back to Springville High School in 2010 and we were a good team and we went up against a good Rochester team who won state, but in the second half we did some good things offensively and that catapulted us into the 2nd half of the season and we made it to the quarterfinals.”
Friday’s game is located at 600 Fifth Street in Solon about 10 minutes northeast of Iowa City north on Hwy 1 and starts at 7:30 p.m.