Nevada football keeps raising the bar: Cubs post 9-2 record, make playoff quarterfinals

Joe Randleman
Ames Tribune

James Edwards was having a tough time holding back his emotions as the Nevada football team huddled together one last time following a 38-0 loss to No. 1 Harlan in the Class 3A quarterfinals of the high school football playoffs Friday at Harlan.

Edwards was distraught at the thought of the season and his high school playing career coming to an end.

But Nevada head coach Andrew Kleeman was right there to comfort him and give him some encouraging words.

"We couldn't have done it without you," Kleeman proudly told his choked-up quarterback.

Nevada football head coach Andrew Kleeman consoles quarterback James Edwards (3) after a 38-0 loss to No. 1 Harlan during the 3A playoff quarterfinals at Merrill Field in Harlan Friday. Edwards and the Cubs put together the best season in school history, finishing with a 9-2 record.

Kleeman wasn't just referring to Edwards with that comment. The entire senior class had not only led Nevada to the best season in school history but also an incredible three-year run that turned Nevada from also-ran to 3A powerhouse.

"Every year they've given us everything they have," Kleeman said. "We love these kids so much. I'd go to battle with them any day of the week. It's just an awesome group that put everything on the line every week for us."

Kleeman took over the program in 2016. Prior to his arrival Nevada had mustered only one winning season in 23 years, a 6-5 record in 2012.

The Cubs made the playoffs in 2012 and 2013. But they were a 2A team those two years and the playoff field was 32 teams instead of the current 16-team format.

Nevada spent most of the last two decades getting pushed around in 3A. The Cubs went through an especially brutal stretch in the mid-to-late 2000s when it was a struggle to do better than one win in a season.

But with Kleeman everything changed.

He focused on improving offseason workouts and keeping his kids dedicated to getting bigger, stronger and faster. Defense and blocking became top priorities.

Then the wins started coming.

The Cubs went 6-3 in 2017. They fell back to 3-6 the next year, but in 2019 they were right back on track, finishing 7-2 and missing the playoffs by a few percentage points according to the RPI method implemented by the IHSAA to determine playoff qualifiers.

That was the first year the current senior crop started making an impact in the varsity program. Last year Nevada went 6-3 during the COVID-shortened season that saw every team make the playoffs.

Nevada blew out a winless Perry team in its 2020 playoff opener, 69-6. But the Cubs lost to long-time rival Ballard in the second round, 28-7.

That didn't sit well with the 2021 seniors. They worked harder than ever to make it back to the postseason this fall.

More:Top-ranked Harlan knocks off Nevada in 3A quarterfinals: What we learned from gutsy Cub effort

More:The secret behind Nevada football's elite Class 3A defensive line

More:How Nevada High School football's elite defense turned the program from pushover to powerhouse

More:'Faster than ... anyone else': Why Nevada WR Caeden DaSilva is poised for huge 2021

The Cubs hammered Boone in its opener, 28-7, then made a huge early statement with a 35-12 victory at West Marshall. The Trojans ended the regular season ranked No. 1 in 2A.

Nevada crushed Roland-Story (64-7) and Hampton-Dumont-CAL (38-14) in its other two non-district games. 

The Cubs took down rival Gilbert in its 3A District 2 opener in decisive fashion, 56-14. The following week they gained the revenge they were looking for with a 34-13 victory over Ballard — their first victory over the Bombers since 1999.

There wasn't much time to celebrate the Ballard win. The Cubs had to face No. 10 Algona the next week.

Nevada disposed of the Bulldogs by a 28-14 score. That put the Cubs at 7-0 and ranked No. 5 in 3A heading into a showdown at No. 7 Humboldt Oct. 15.

Nevada was in control most of the way against the Bulldogs. But costly turnovers hurt them in a heartbreaking 19-15 loss to a team that will be facing Harlan in this week's 3A state semifinals at the UNI-Dome.

The Cubs were denied a district title with the win and they took out their frustrations on North Polk, ending the regular season with a 35-0 victory over the Comets.

Nevada finished sixth in 3A. The Cubs got to host the first round of the playoffs, taking on No. 10 Adel-Desoto-Minburn.

In a game between two very similar teams that featured strong rushing attacks led by mobile quarterbacks, Nevada prevailed by a 34-26 score to set up its quarterfinal battle with Harlan.

"This team (Harlan) was seeking their 29th trip to the semis and we were seeking our first," Kleeman said. "All that means is we're still learning and still growing as a program. These seniors have put us on the map."

Even though the Cubs fell short against the Cyclones, they know they were part of something special. 

Nevada ended up averaging 35.2 points and 334.5 yards and only giving up 11.5 points and 230.7 yards per game.

Edwards threw for 1,099 yards and 12 touchdowns with just six interceptions and he ran for 1,188 yards and 21 touchdowns on 5.6 yards per carry.

Senior Caeden DaSilva was an elite receiver with 33 catches for an even 700 yards and eight touchdowns. Sophomore Cason Stevenson ran for 1,138 yards and 14 touchdowns on an impressive 9.7 yards per carry.

After running for 1,138 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2021 Nevada sophomore running back Cason Stevenson will be one of the top players counted on to keep the Cubs' winning ways going in 2022.

Drew Robinson had 151 yards and one touchdown on 11 receptions and 6-7 tight end Carson Rhodes 121 yards and three scores on 11 catches. Colin Memmer added 98 yards receiving on 10 catches, Cael Franzen ran for two touchdowns and Noah Mills ran for one.

Senior safety Caleb Kooiker and Franzen led way on defense for Nevada.

Kooiker made 109.5 tackles and two fumble recoveries and Franzen had 111.5 stops, including seven tackles behind the line, with one fumble recovery.

"This season was great," Kooiker said. "Cael and I have started since our sophomore year and we knew this was going to be a big season for us."

Defensive ends Gavin Melohn and Connor Schnettgoecke led Nevada's pressure defense up front with six sacks apiece. Melohn had 11.5 tackles for loss and returned a fumble for a touchdown and Schnettgoecke finished with 10 stops behind the line and two fumble recoveries.

Senior safety Ty Dittmer also recovered two fumbled and Karter Beving, Dylan Fritz, Adan Thompson and Seth Brown each recovered one fumble.

Brown also had an impressive six interceptions at cornerback. DaSilva gave Nevada two lockdown corners and he chipped in one interception.

Dittmer picked off two passes and Edwards, Robinson and Beving added one interception apiece.

DaSilva averaged 33 yards on seven kick returns and 16.5 on six punt returns. He returned one kickoff and one punt for a touchdown.

Robinson averaged 16.2 yards with one touchdown on nine punt returns and he also returned nine kickoffs for an average of 26.8 yards.

Rhodes averaged 35 yards on 21 punts and Freeman converted 47 of 51 PATs with one field goal from 22 yards out.

Nevada must replace a lot next year with the loss of Edwards, DaSilva, Kooiker, Franzen, Melohn, Schnettgoecke, Brown and other key contributors.

But the Cubs feel they have turned the corner as a program and will be capable of fielding a competitive team year in and year out.

"We used to be really bad and now we've made it to the quarterfinals," Kooiker said. "I hope the underclassmen can see that, get in the weight room like we did and maybe someday Nevada will be a football powerhouse."