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Friday night the lights on

Spartans look to improve on last year’s six-win season

SOLON– The final dress rehearsal was held Friday, Aug. 19, for the Solon Spartans’ 2016 football season with the new high school auditorium, nearing completion, as a back drop. The lights were tested, the football team scrimmaged– their final preparation before the season– and the fall athletes were introduced.
As the scrimmage was taking place, Solon alumni Marshal Koehn, playing for the Miami Dolphins, and James Morris, playing for the Dallas Cowboys, squared off in NFL preseason football.
A lot of things are changing this fall: the weather, the leaves, the complexion of Solon’s campus, a changing of the guard in the football ranks, and, this season in particular, the district in which the Spartans compete.
Solon finished last year 6-5 with a loss in its Class 3A second round game at West Delaware, the same place they exited the play-offs the prior year. The Spartans avenged a loss during the regular season, in the first round, against the Washington Demons. However, it was the first time in at least 10 years Solon finished a season with less than eight wins.
That being said, last season’s Spartan team produced four players who propelled their football careers to the collegiate level and one who chose to pursue his collegiate track aspirations. This season, Solon football alum Brandan Childs plans to play while attending Wartburg College; Dalton Vislisel and Spencer Lawson both hope to see play time at Loras College; and the late Tanner Wymer planned to play football at Northwest Missouri State University. Nate Christensen chose to pursue his track aspirations and will be running at Grandview University in Des Moines. If some of the former Spartan players see playing time, the Loras versus Wartburg game could get interesting on a local level, especially if Childs, Vislisel and Lawson get the opportunity to compete against one another this season.
“We lost several key players and many will be difficult to replace,” said Solon Head Coach Kevin Miller via email. He was asked who leapt to mind with the same potential as those continuing to compete at the collegiate level. “It’s pretty early at this point to determine who will surface,” he said. “We have players that are certainly capable of competing and improving.”
Preseason local sports analysts in several recent articles have tapped seniors Trevor Nelson and Jacob Coons as the early returning stars.
Coons is listed as a tight end/defensive end this season and, in December, he became the University of Iowa Hawkeyes’ fourth commitment in the 2017 class. As a receiver, Coons’ 6-foot-3-inches, 215-pound stature may have impressed the Hawkeyes, but during his junior season he was held to just 10 catches for 223 yards and three touchdowns, albeit hampered by a nagging high ankle sprain. In 2014 as a sophomore, he collected 17 catches for 198 yards and two touchdowns. Last season on defense, he had 11 solo tackles, nine assists, three were for loss, and he drug down one solo tackle. If Coons can stay healthy for the season, he could become a regular target for this season’s quarterback, Blayze Griffis who will be looking for replacements for last season’s regular targets: Christensen, Halston Durr and Matthew Roeder.
Nelson is listed at running back and linebacker on the roster provided by Coach Miller. During the 2015 campaign, he carried the ball 49 times for 223 yards, averaging 4.6 yards per carry, and scored one 2-yard touchdown. He also amassed 44 solo tackles, had 17.5 tackle assists, five for loss, and four solo sacks on defense. Nelson’s surge in rushing, along with the gains of departing Spencer Lawson, helped elevate Solon’s record late last season.
Griffis received the nod this season as the replacement of Childs, after splitting duties at quarterback early last season. This may well expand Solon’s repertoire with the threat of an aerial assault in their arsenal. During the 2015 season, Griffis collected 647 total yards passing with a 53 percent completion rate on 100 passes and scored five touchdowns, the longest of which was a 58-yard completion. He had nine interceptions and rushed 47 times for 112 yards and two touchdowns, the longest a 3-yard run.
“We feel that we have to be balanced in our offensive attack,” Miller commented, when asked if the fans were going to see a more pass-oriented offense with Griffis at the helm. “Blayze has the ability to throw the football and we have several capable weapons. However, rushing the football will also be fundamental to our offensive production, as well.”
The offensive and defensive lines felt the biggest impact from the senior departures facing the vacancies created by Vislisel, Jared Clevenger, Lawson, and Wymer. Potential candidates with tested experience from last season are Justin Gibbs, Tyler Linderbaum and Jackson Walker.
“We lost three offensive linemen and three on the (defensive line),” added Miller. “Again, they will be difficult to replace but we have some capable players. The key will be to (see) how the linemen develop and improve each week.”
The Iowa High School Athletic Association’s Class 3A District 5, which now includes Solon, is now made up of Fairfield, Fort Madison, Keokuk, Mount Pleasant, Oskaloosa, Washington and West Burlington/Notre Dame. Gone from Solon’s schedule this season are the challenges of Cedar Rapids Xavier, Marion, Central Clinton DeWitt, Maquoketa, Western Dubuque Epworth, Dubuque Wahlert and West Delaware due to the revisions to the playoffs and the district alignment.
The biggest games and challengers?
“There will be some new challenges that we’ll be faced with,” said Miller.  “Mount Vernon, Regina, Washington and Mount Pleasant appear to be extremely competitive.”
Solon’s regular season schedule includes:
On Friday, Aug. 26, the Spartans welcome Mount Vernon to Spartan Stadium. Last season the Mustangs went 7-2 in the regular season, 11-3 overall, and lost in the 2A final round to Spirit Lake.
On Friday, Sept. 2, Solon visits Iowa City Regina which went 13-1 overall last year, with the only loss to Cedar Rapids Xavier.
On Friday, Sept. 9, Solon welcomes Keokuk. Keokuk was 3-6 overall last year, enduring a week seven loss to Washington, 50-7.
On Friday, Sept. 16, the Spartans visit Washington, 7-3 last season, and the site of the Spartans’ defeat in week five, 28-14, and the site where the Spartans eliminated the Demons in the first round of the playoffs, 17-14.
On Friday, Sept. 23, Solon hosts Oskaloosa a 2-7 team last year.
On Friday Sept. 30, the Spartans trek to Fort Madison, which went 2-7 last season and suffered a week six loss to Washington, 54-35, last year.
Friday, Oct. 7, is Solon’s final home stand against Mount Pleasant. Mount Pleasant was 1-8 last season, with a loss to Washington, 42-24.
On Friday, Oct. 14, the Spartans visit West Burlington, which was 4-5 last the season and was defeated by Fort Madison, 49-14.
On Friday, Oct. 21, Solon finishes the regular season at Fairfield. Fairfield went 4-5 last season, losing to Washington, 23-0.
“The players have worked extremely hard this pre-season,” Miller continuedsaid.  “I’m excited for the season to start and the staff is encouraged by what they’ve observed thus far. A successful season will rely on the growth and improvement that our players make individually and collectively as a team.”
The stage is set, the last dress rehearsal is in the books, and it is time.
A new show starts Friday night when the lights come up.
Coach Miller’s assistants this season are: Brent Sands, Mark Sovers, Brad Wymer, Aaron Hadenfeldt, Chris Croy, Dan Coons, Curt Miller, Tanner Butler, Mike Ferguson, Aaron Kampman, Clint Donovan, Jacob Black and Mike Moser. Managers are Emily Troyer, Brittney Dvorsky, Katy Clevenger and Heather Kienholz. Ball boys are Carson Miller and Lucas Kampman.