HARLAN, Iowa — As they gather around their legendary coach, seated in a golf cart at the end of practice on a warm Tuesday, it seems impossible to consider:
The football program with more Iowa state championships (12) and playoff victories (88) than anyone hasn't attracted much attention at the midway point of the regular season.
In case you missed it, Harlan is 5-0. But Curt Bladt's Cyclones have been overshadowed. Defending district champion Creston/Orient-Macksburg returned many of its top players. Council Bluffs Lewis Central often dazzled in winning its first four games. And unbeaten ADM is merely coming off wins over Creston and Lewis Central.
Harlan enjoys being vanilla. Nothing fancy, but always there. A constant.
“It's kind of nice to fly under the radar for once,” Harlan senior linebacker Jeff Flies said. “We're always hearing, ‘Oh, it's Harlan.' But this year we're flying under the radar, and everyone is kind of slowly starting to notice us. Hopefully we'll play like that, kind of peak toward the end of the season.”
Harlan won't avoid the spotlight this week. The state No. 6 Cyclones (2-0 in district play) travel to No. 8 Creston (4-1, 2-1) for a Class 3-A, District 1 game. It begins a four-game stretch (Lewis Central, Atlantic, ADM) against playoff-caliber teams.
“We might as well accept the challenge and see what's going to happen, see if we're made of the stuff it takes to go anywhere,” Bladt said.
In order to go anywhere, it usually takes a talented quarterback. The Cyclones graduated all-stater Zach Osborn (3,303 passing yards, 33 TDs in 2011) and his top four receivers. Adam Juhl, a 6-foot, 150-pound junior, has stepped in, throwing for 899 yards and nine scores while completing 60 percent of his passes.
“He's done a great job,” Bladt said. “He's a student of the game. He was a little excitable there early, but he's calmed down a little bit.”
The son of Harlan assistant Kelly Juhl said he watched Osborn intently last season, envisioning his turn under center at Merrill Field.
“I've been dreaming about it for a long time, probably since I started playing quarterback in middle school,” he said. “I've always wanted to be the quarterback, the point guard, the one who leads the team.”
Juhl has developed a strong rapport with senior Nate Kloewer (6-1, 190), who has 19 catches for 370 yards and five touchdowns.
“We have pretty good chemistry,” Kloewer said. “We run routes every day after practice, to get the feel of where I'm going to be. He just finds me.”
Senior tailback Chris Hopkins (5-7, 135) has run for 476 yards and five scores.
“Little Hoppy, he goes hard,” Bladt said. “They're trying to beat the crap out of him, but he just keeps coming back. He's 137 pounds soaking wet with a 10-pound rock in his pocket, but he keeps getting up. And he'll take it to you.”
Flies (6-0, 200) anchors the defense with a team-best 79 tackles.
“We're doing a better job on defense than we did last year,” said Bladt, who is 369-41 (.900) in 35 years with 11 state titles, four more than anyone in Iowa history. “We're still having trouble with a lot of stuff right at us, real quick stuff. And I'm sure we're going to get a heavy dose of that Friday night with the Panthers.”
A year ago, Creston beat Harlan for only the third time in 43 meetings, ending the Cyclones' run of eight straight district titles with a 42-20 win that included 368 rushing yards.
Bladt said he hasn't brought up last year's game to his players.
“We're not in this for revenge,” he said. “We're just in this to see if we can get to the playoffs somehow, and get by somebody here in the last four games.”
Don't get the Cyclones wrong. They want to win. But a loss won't shatter their dreams.
Five days after last year's loss to Creston, they stunned No. 5 Sioux City Heelan 35-30 in a playoff opener, and rode that momentum to an unlikely trip to the UNI-Dome and the 3-A semifinals.
“We're probably not a frontrunner right now,” Bladt said. “We weren't a frontrunner last year.”
To close, a reporter asks the colorful coach about his team's eagerness for this next wave of games.
“It'll definitely be a wave,” Bladt said. “I just hope we're on a surfboard, and not a matchstick!”
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