It hangs in the Atlantic weight room, a looming reminder of the sting that accompanies losing.
It's a photo of the Trojans huddled together after last year's 17-7 first-round playoff football loss to Boyden-Hull/Rock Valley. It doesn't matter that Atlantic was the fourth seed and the Nighthawks were the top seed, and few expected the Trojans to win the game.
It was a loss and it ended Atlantic's season at 4-6. Enough said.
“We basically use it as motivation,” Atlantic first-year head coach Nick Ross said. “We don't want this type of feeling again.”
With the 27-year-old Ross leading the charge, Atlantic is determined to turn the corner this year. Ross' club carries a 2-0 record along with state and area rankings into Friday's 7 p.m. Class 3-A, District 1 opener against Creston (2-0) at the Trojan Bowl.
“Every time we step on the field, we don't have any doubt that we're supposed to be here and we're supposed to win,” senior Sam Markham said.
That's a big statement, considering where Atlantic has been in the past nine years. After Ross earned first-team all-state honors as a run-stuffing linebacker in 2002, leading the Trojans to the 3-A title with future Iowa State standouts Bret Meyer and Tom Schmeling, the Atlantic program fell on hard times.
From 2003 to 2011, Atlantic went 35-48 (.422). The Trojans won no playoff games in that time, and they haven't finished with a winning record in seven years.
Last year, Atlantic snuck in at 4-5 before losing to Boyden-Hull/Rock Valley. Five of its six losses came by 10 points or less.
Ross was on last year's staff as an assistant. The three-year starter at Drake University, where the Bulldogs were 25-8 during that time, took the reins from Tim Duff with the goal of turning the Trojans into winners on the football field. It started with getting his players to make an even deeper commitment to their coaches and teammates.
“We've upped the ante a little bit and demanded a lot out of them here lately,'' Ross said. “They've answered the call. They want to help bring Atlantic football back to what it used to be and what it can be.”
A good start came last Friday, when the Trojans edged a capable Carroll squad 25-20. Senior Harrison Hoegh, the starter at quarterback since midway through his sophomore year, threw for 167 yards and two scores, both to Markham, who finished with 113 receiving yards.
The 6-foot-2, 190-pound Hoegh threw for 1,438 yards as a junior, with 10 TDs and eight interceptions. Ross said Hoegh has become even more of a student of the game this year.
“The great thing about Harrison is that he'll come in for extra study sessions,” he said. “He'll watch film, he'll get on the white board with you. Anything we do on the football field, he's completely and totally committed to being better. When that guy for you plays quarterback, it can't help but make the team better.”
Hoegh said he's able to read defenses better this year, improving his production.
“I felt more mentally prepared to play this year,” he said. “It's made me a lot more calm these first couple games. When you have reads, the game kind of slows down a little bit.”
Few Iowa football teams have better receiving duos than the 6-1, 170-pound Markham and senior Dalton Franken, a 6-5, 185-pounder. They each compiled more than 500 receiving yards a year ago, and they were the team's top two receivers as sophomores as well.
“I just know how they run their routes and where they're going to be,'' Hoegh said.
Atlantic also has plenty of other emerging skill players, Ross said, including junior running back Jacob Dvorak and senior utility man Kray Lukehart.
Ross said nearly all of his top players have competed in multiple sports while continuing to lift through the school year and summer.
“When you put in the type of commitment that our kids have put in here this last offseason, it makes it a lot harder to quit on Friday night,” Ross said.
The Trojans can't wait to take their home field Friday against Creston in a matchup of state-rated teams. They feel prepared because they've followed their young coach's lead.
“He preaches to win every day, not just on the football field or in the weight room, but in the classroom and in the community,'' Markham said.
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