Trent Solsma wanted just to get on the football field last year. Now he’s perhaps the most accomplished returning quarterback in the state.
Practice reps will be much more frequent this time around for the Sioux City Heelan senior who nearly wound up as a reserve tight end and linebacker a season ago. But Solsma won a tight three-way QB competition in the fall. Then, he improbably became the 14th player in Iowa history to pass for more than 3,000 yards, while his 39 passing touchdowns tied for fourth-best all time.
“A lot of people tell me how great of a year I had,” Solsma said. “I guess I did surprise myself a little bit. But going into this year now, the expectations are even higher for myself.”
Heelan coach Roger Jansen didn’t anticipate those results either. With Solsma making plays late in the season, the Crusaders reached the Class 3-A state title game and closed with a 12-2 record.
The coach’s favorite part? The success hasn’t gone to No. 3’s head. Instead it’s providing motivation for the season ahead while showing others that they can follow a similar path.
“You keep telling these kids if they work hard and do this and do that, they’re going to reap the benefits — I think this is just a perfect example,” Jansen said. “It’s something that he earned. He had to work hard at it, and that’s what makes his story.”
Of course, not everyone possesses Solsma’s cannon for an arm or his 6-foot-1, 200-pound frame that also translates into success in basketball and baseball. Not everyone is willing to spend 30 to 45 minutes a night studying film during game weeks.
Not everyone gets a former college quarterback to work with either. Heelan assistant Pat Grace — an all-state quarterback for the Crusaders in 2004 and former Northern Iowa standout — has helped Solsma better understand how to read coverages.
“I like sitting in the pocket and throwing it around,” Solsma said. “But if the line breaks down and I have to go make a play, I’m definitely not afraid to do that either.”
The all-stater went 202-of-311 passing (65 percent) last season for 3,177 yards. He also ran for 204 yards and nine touchdowns on 91 carries. His 202 completions are 23rd most in a season in Iowa history.
But 15 interceptions came along with that. In every game he threw at least one. Limiting those mistakes will be key to Heelan’s chances of returning to the UNI-Dome this fall.
“His main job is going to be to manage the football game and get us into the best possible play,” Jansen said. “He doesn’t have to win football games for us — he just has to manage the game and get us into the right situations.”
Heelan returns its top wideout in senior Connor Niles (1,082 yards and 18 TDs on 59 catches last season) as well as senior Philip Jacobson (736, nine, 42). But the running game is relatively unproven and the offensive line brings back only two starters, not including current Northern Iowa players Bryce Sweeney and Zach Skibinski.
“Everyone’s going to be talking about Heelan getting back to the title game,” Solsma said. “If we don’t get there and win it, it’s definitely going to be a season we’re not going to want to remember.”
Jansen said he’s seeing the commitment necessary to contend for a state banner. The day before varsity camp began, he asked if any players would volunteer their last free day to help at a freshman meeting. Solsma happily made the short trip from his home in Dakota Dunes, S.D., to lend a hand.
“You would have thought that their position coach was down there,” Jansen said. “He may not be the most outgoing, but he’ll do anything that you ask and he’s very, very well-respected.
“When he does say something — coming from the quiet person that he is — ears perk up and listen. If he does say something, it must be pretty important.”