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SBLive Iowa high school football Class 5A district preview: Everyone once again chasing Southeast Polk

Rams will be the hunted this fall on the gridiron
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With baseball and softball in the rearview mirror, the attention is now turned to the beginning of the 2023-24 athletic season and that means football. 

The reigning Class 5A kings reside in District 2 this year, as Southeast Polk claimed the throne last season with a convincing victory over West Des Moines Valley.

But a new season brings with it a fresh start, as everyone feels like they will be the ones to win it all this time. Several teams have shifted districts, leaving new paths to the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls for them to navigate through.

SBLive Iowa begins its series previewing the districts around the state:



West Des Moines Dowling fell in the state playoff semifinals last season. 

West Des Moines Dowling fell in the state playoff semifinals last season. 

West Des Moines Dowling

Once the giants in 5A, West Des Moines Dowling has been forced to take a bit of a back seat to Southeast Polk in recent years. Last season, the Maroons were stunned by long-time rival West Des Moines Valley in the state semifinals, ending their pursuit of another title.

That loss, though, will only motivate head coach Tom Wilson and his staff this fall. Junior Dante Cataldo is expected to replace Jaxon Smolik under center, as Smolik has moved on to Penn State. Last year, Cataldo completed 77 percent of his passes for 286 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

What Cataldo brings to the offense that is different than Smolik is his ability to run. More of a spread quarterback, Cataldo ran for over five yards per carry last year. He will be joined in the backfield by classmate CJ Phillip and junior Ra’Shawd Davis, who racked up over 1,500 yards and 27 touchdowns on the ground.

The three leading receivers have moved on, leaving the likes of Hank Brown, Trey Wilson and Michael Koerner to fill the void. On defense, Matthew Hanten, Kenyi James and Dylan Manning are the next man in for Dowling.

Ankeny Centennial

Ankeny Centennial found its groove midway through the season, winning four in a row. However, they were edged in a rematch by Cedar Falls in the playoffs after claiming the regular season contest. Senior quarterback Trenton Smith is back alongside top rusher Elijah Porter and leading receivers Chase Schutty and Max Snyder. Porter is a strong dual threat, having also caught 22 passes.



The J-Hawks knocked off state runner-up West Des Moines Valley during the regular season and hung tough with Ankeny Centennial, but a 1-3 mark down the stretch kept them out of the playoffs. The J-Hawks will also be breaking in a new quarterback but return leading rushers Hunter Bagby and Jaylon Brooks.


Sioux City North ended the regular season by blowing out its final two opponents, 119-0, and the Stars return leading rusher Demarico Young, who scored 18 touchdowns. Des Moines Roosevelt graduated Dominic Wade, but Brady Palmer was able to get some snaps in last year and will have Jayden Davison to help ease the transition on offense. Des Moines East has JeCari Patton back after he threw for 12 touchdowns and leading receiver Daniel Zeoh to work with.



Southeast Polk is the Class 5A defending state champion. 

Southeast Polk is the Class 5A defending state champion. 

Southeast Polk

Not only will everyone in this district be chasing Southeast Polk, but the Rams have made it their home atop the entire class. The defending state champions are once again loaded despite losing elite-level talent. The closest game they had in the playoffs last year was a 21-point win over Johnston in the semifinals, blasting past Ames, Cedar Rapids Prairie and West Des Moines Valley along the way.

Senior Connor Moberly runs the offense to perfection, coming off a season in which he completed 71 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns. Abu Sama and Harrison Gibson, who ran for a combined 2,600-plus yards and scored 39 touchdowns, are gone, but Landon Vander Werff, Jace Baxter and Holden Hansen look ready to replace them.

Moberly will also have leading target Carson Robbins back while the defense is anchored by Draven Woods, Caleb Chebuhar, Mason Van Der Brink, Treyton Naeve and Cooper Martinson. As a unit, Southeast Polk scored seven defensive touchdowns last season.

Johnson star quarterback Will Nuss. 

Johnson star quarterback Will Nuss. 


Johnston won five consecutive games before falling to Southeast Polk in the finals, including a 23-13 win over Ankeny in the semis. The Dragons have an exciting young talent in junior Will Nuss, who is also an elite baseball player. Nuss racked up over 2,200 yards passing and 23 touchdowns last fall and will have top target Jacob Simpson back.

The Dragons were turnover machines a season ago, forcing 28 with three touchdowns. Jake Shaw had three interceptions and is a key member of the unit back along with Taylen Proctor and Josh Kerber, who racked up 13 tackles for loss.



Not many teams played a tougher schedule than Waukee last year, as the Warriors were matched up with Ankeny, Ankeny Centennial, West Des Moines Valley, Johnston and West Des Moines Dowling. That experience, though, should pay off for returning quarterback Beckett Bakker, as the sophomore was thrown into the fire and still came out with positive results. Leading rusher Nile Eddy and top receiver Charlie Cross are also back. Malachi Curvey is one of the top recruits in the state in the Class of 2025.


Sioux City East was a surprise last year, as the Black Raiders won seven games and scored over 50 points four times. But they lost quarterback Cole Ritchie and most of their top weapons. Council Bluffs Lincoln continues to build around junior Etienne Higgins, while Des Moines Lincoln hopes for better results after winning just one game. Junior Javon Sanders did rush for 645 yards and three touchdowns.



Iowa City High

Ben Kueter has moved across town from playing for the Little Hawks to the Iowa Hawkeyes, but Iowa City High should still be in contention for a district title. Drew Larson is coming off a season in which he threw 19 touchdowns against just four interceptions, completing 68 percent of his throws for almost 1,900 yards. Dominic Salibi, Carsen Newton and a handful of others will be counted on to replace the production of Kueter and Ronnie Major.

The graduation of Kueter will likely be felt more on the defensive side of the ball, but Sam Kueter looks ready to step in after recording four sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. Holdon Clay is also back, while Larson is a key member of the secondary.

Cedar Rapids Kennedy

If anybody is going to keep City High from the crown, it might be Cedar Rapids Kennedy. The Cougars just continue to pile up points year after year. Vincenzo Gianforte stepped into the quarterback role and racked up over 1,300 yards in the air, while Trevor Scott is back after rushing for nearly 500. Cyrus Country is a big-play threat after averaging 15 yards per catch with five scores.



Despite going just 3-6 last fall, Bettendorf was within a touchdown of Muscatine, Cedar Rapids Prairie and Cedar Falls, and two touchdowns of Urbandale, Elusive senior dual-threat quarterback Charles Zimmerman returns after demonstrating the ability to escape pressure effectively and throw on the run last season. His top returning target, junior Wrigley Mathys, is a versatile weapon with elite speed. The Bulldogs also return some key pieces on defense. Senior Ronan Numkena returns for his third varsity season on the defensive front. Junior linebacker Sam Beecher was one of the leading tacklers for the Bulldogs last year. Speedy defensive back, Isaiah Dunn returns in the secondary and has received recruiting interest from Big XII Champion Kansas State. 


Davenport Central, Davenport North and Dubuque Hempstead each won one game last season. Davenport Central has Tatum Roselle back after threw for 657 yards and ran for another 264. Davenport North will need to replace Nolan Mosier, but could give sophomore Drew Sheedy more exposure, while Dubuque Hempstead has Quinn Breitbach and Steffonte Jones to build around.



West Des Moines Valley went from underdogs last fall to favorites this season. 

West Des Moines Valley went from underdogs last fall to favorites this season. 

West Des Moines Valley

It isn’t very often that you could refer to West Des Moines Valley as an underdog, but the Tigers carried the moniker last year to a surprising run to the state championship game. This year, though, the Tigers return to their more familiar role as favorites as they battle for a district crown. Darius Mason is likely to be the featured back once again after rushing for 716 yards with eight touchdowns. Damon Head and Isaiah Pinks can both spell him, while Zay Robinson looks to replace Ayden Price after catching 36 passes for 409 yards.

Pinks is also a standout on the defensive side of the ball, forcing four turnovers last fall, while Robinson averaged 27 yards per kickoff return, including a 93-yarder he took back for six.

Waukee Northwest

If it isn’t Valley coming out on top, it might be Waukee Northwest. After starting the year 0-3 with losses to the Tigers, Dowling and Southeast Polk, the Wolves reeled off four consecutive wins and went 6-1 before falling to Dowling in the quarterfinals. Sam Johnson is a perfect dual-threat quarterback, throwing for 980 yards while running for another 572. He will need to find new weapons, though, after graduating leading rusher Brady Grisham and top receiver Jackson Adams.



It will be interesting to see how Ames fares this fall after a playoff run last year. The Little Cyclones graduated quarterback Dallas Sauser but have a budding star in junior Jamison Poe, who ran for 870 yards and 13 touchdowns. Poe also caught 39 passes for 319 more yards and five touchdowns. Sophomore Danarii Mickel was a state wrestling finalist in the winter and could make an impact.


Marshalltown closed out 2022 with four consecutive wins, scoring over 30 points in all four games. The Bobcats return quarterback Dalen Huston, as the senior ran for 17 touchdowns and threw for almost 1,000 yards. Ottumwa and Waterloo West won a combined seven games last year, but both programs were hit hard by graduation.



Pleasant Valley

Pleasant Valley was considered a contender to not only reach the UNI-Dome, but maybe even claim the title. After a perfect 9-0 regular season, though, the Spartans were stunned by West Des Moines Valley on their home field. Coy Kipper will get the first crack at replacing Caden McDermott under center, while Tyge Lyon and Tate Lyon are key staples at the skill positions. Tate Lyon is also an anchor on defense after recording 57.5 tackles.

Cedar Falls

Ironically enough, Cedar Falls also felt the brunt of the Valley run, losing to the Tigers in the quarterfinals after upending Ankeny Centennial in the first round and avenging a regular season loss. Quarterback Tate Hermansen directs the offensive attack that is led by 1,469-yard rusher Drake Gelhaus and top receiver Logan Wroe. Drew Gerdes recorded 92 tackles a season ago with 10.5 coming for loss.



It will be difficult to knock Pleasant Valley or Cedar Falls from the top spot, but Linn-Mar showed plenty of promise last year. The Lions hung around with Pleasant Valley, losing 14-7, scored 27 against Southeast Polk and qualified for the playoffs. Austin Waller should be ready for an even bigger junior season after throwing for over 1,300 yards as a sophomore.


Davenport West looked prime for something big a year ago, starting the year 6-0, but went just 1-3 down the stretch and lost to Dowling in the playoffs. The Falcons will also need to find a capable replacement for quarterback Brady Hansen. Dubuque Senior is in the same boat after winning four games but losing quarterback Jack Simon, while Muscatine finished 3-6 and has Ty Cozad to build around after he ran for 2,079 yards and scored 20 touchdowns.




A season that was supposed to be history-making for Ankeny came up short, as the Hawks were stunned by Johnston in the quarterfinals. During the season, Ankeny topped both eventual state champion Southeast Polk and runner-up West Des Moines Valley behind current Iowa State players JJ Kohl and Jamison Patton. Juniors Luke Anderson and Jett Each both saw limited snaps at the varsity level last fall, while Caden Henkes returns as the top rusher along with receiver Ean Irlmeier.

If you haven’t heard the name Jack Wallace, prepare to get familiar with it this year. As a sophomore for Iowa City West, Wallace threw for over 1,700 yards with 17 touchdowns and just two interceptions. He enters this season with the likes of Todd Rent, Ashton Honore and Mason Woods to build around. Woods doubles as a standout on defense along with Honore and Santana Miller.


Cedar Rapids Prairie

Cedar Rapids Prairie was hit hard by graduation, but the Hawks do have top receiver Apollo Payne back. Payne caught 35 passes for 476 yards, while senior classmate Casey Kelley ran for 509 yards and caught 18 passes with seven combined scores. Prairie also showed great resolve last year, losing to Linn-Mar in the regular season, 28-13, but returning to knock them out of the playoffs a week later, 50-28.


Iowa City Liberty and Cedar Rapids Washington are both moving up from 4A, as Liberty reached the quarterfinals and Washington qualified for the playoffs. The Lightning could become a factor if they can adjust quickly, as they feature senior Graham Beckman, who threw for 2,580 yards with 31 touchdowns. Cedar Rapids Washington has its own QB back in Malik Epps-Keller, but lost speedster Miles Thompson to Texas Tech. Cedar Rapids Jefferson played several underclassmen a year ago, as both Jeremiah Peiffer and Vernon Benda took snaps under center and are back along with Tyler Huston and LJ Nyenow, Jr.