The Muscatine football team (3-1) has reached a critical juncture in its season.
It's also homecoming week, and head coach Jake Mueller needs his team as focused as ever heading into what he predicts to be a "dog fight" Friday night in the district opener against Iowa City High (2-2).
"I'm not sure there's a coach in America who loves homecoming week just as far as preparation for your team," Mueller said. "As an advocate for our school, I think it's great for everybody. But just for somebody who's got to coach a group of high school boys, there are challenges with it. I think our kids are doing pretty well for the most part, and our coaches are doing our best to keep them focused.
"You got to talk about it. You got to get out in the open, get ahead of it a little bit and discuss and walk them through it a little bit. I've been pretty honest with them, I want them to enjoy the week, but we got to take care of business in practice so that we can take care of business on Friday night."
After giving up 201 yards on the ground and four rushing touchdowns in a 42-7 loss at home last week against Johnston, Mueller has been stressing to his team the importance of tackling and everyone doing their assignment heading into Friday's matchup against another run-heavy opponent.
Iowa City High's 724 rushing yards through the first four weeks lead Class 4A District 4, and the Little Hawks have three players who already have eclipsed the 100-yard mark.
"We got to continue to work on our tackling and being disciplined, doing our assignment," Mueller said. "When we've given up big plays and when we've not done things well on defense it's because we haven't done our assignment and we haven't tackled."
Offensively, the Muskies struggled to finish drives a week ago, finding the end zone just once against the Dragons after averaging 25.7 points per games in three wins to start the season. They collected just 173 total yards, including 59 on the ground, but could find more room to run against a defense that gave up 245 rushing yards in last week's 23-22 win against Dubuque Hempstead.
"There's always room for improvement at every position," Muscatine tight end Cooper Zeck said. "Just on offense, we got to execute a little bit better, finish drives."
Muscatine and Iowa City High have played each other in each of the past five seasons. The Muskies won last year's battle 20-16, but Iowa City High has won three of five, and all of the contests have been decided by eight or fewer points.
"City High is always well coached, and they always play hard," Mueller said. "I can't remember how many years we've played them now, but it's been a back-and-forth battle. It seems like every year, it's been coming down to the last possession or two. We know we're going to be in a dog fight. They're always hard-nosed and tough every single year, and we know we're going to get a big challenge on Friday."
It may be just the first week of district play, but the Muskies know how much is at stake.
"I know everybody's confident," Zeck said. "This is where the games really start to matter because obviously if you win out your district, you're going to the playoffs."