By Jon Gremmels
Herald Sports Editor
Regardless of how the season ends, at least several Clinton High football players will be on the field for their final regular-season game instead of watching from the sidelines.
The River Kings are getting healthy again, and coach Lee Camp said seniors Will Carr, Tyler Thacker, Alex Smith and Josiah Molina all will be back in the starting lineup Friday night when the Kings play host to Bettendorf in the Mississippi Athletic Conference.
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"They have committed a lot of time and effort, and you want the best for those kids — they're all great kids," Camp said. "To see them overcome adversity is nice."
They return for Clinton's last chance to sneak into the Class 4A playoff field, although it appears that the Kings (2-6) will need a lot of help to move on.
"That's what the other coaches say," said Camp, who has said for years that he doesn't pay attention to playoff scenarios during the season.
The River Kings enter the final week of the regular season tied with Cedar Rapids Washington for 18th place in the eastern part of the state with 260 playoff points. The top 16 teams qualify for the postseason in the east, while the western part of the state has gone to a district format that Camp prefers.
"With us in the MAC, we could be at a disadvantage because we play a round-robin schedule," he said. Meanwhile, the Mississippi Valley Conference — which has the other 14 teams in the eastern part of the state — is split into two divisions, so there can be more playoff points available. In the current standings, for instance, two MVC schools are unbeaten and another has just one loss, and they hold the Nos. 2-4 spots in the point standings behind MAC leader Pleasant Valley.
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Regardless, the River Kings must win Friday to have any chance of playing on. Even with a win, though, it looks as if they need help such as Davenport Central winning, Cedar Rapids Kennedy beating Iowa City High and Marion Linn-Mar, Waterloo West and Cedar Rapids Washington all losing.
All the Kings can do is worry about themselves. And it should help having Carr back at quarterback, Thacker back at wideout and Molina back at linebacker. Despite missing several games with a leg injury, Carr still is the team's top rusher (562 yards) and passer (395). Thacker leads the team with 236 receiving yards, while Molina (42) and Smith (34) rank among the top six in tackles.
Clinton did lose two-way lineman Jake Oldaker (concussion) last week, so Smith will move from defensive end to defensive tackle, and junior Trent Hessing will take over at Oldaker's guard spot.
Although Bettendorf has seen them all on tape, the lineup changes will give Clinton a different look than it has had in recent weeks.
The Bulldogs come into the game with a very un-Bettendorf-like 5-3 record after losing 7-6 to Davenport Assumption last Thursday. But Camp said underestimating the Bulldogs was dangerous.
"Bettendorf still has a quality team," he said. "They have really good size in the line and a good running back in Bubba Hernandez."
Hernandez will try to surpass the 1,000-yard barrier Friday. He comes into the game with 923 yards rushing on 141 carries.
"What they don't have is the quarterback experience and overall team speed, and they graduated a lot of experience on defense," Camp said. "They're not as physical and dominating as they have been."
The Bulldogs do have an experienced quarterback, but he's not playing the position this year. Nick Heimendinger, who guided the Bulldogs to second place in the state last year, had offseason shoulder surgery and is playing a receiver spot this year. That left sophomore Cyle Cox to start at quarterback. He has completed 83 of 150 passes for 1,059 yards.
Whether they make the playoffs or not, the River Kings would like to send Bettendorf into the postseason coming off a loss in the regular-season finale.
"With the seniors we have — it's a great group — it's unfortunate we're in the position we're in record-wise," Camp said. "But, we're getting kids back, we've had a good week of practice and we're excited about how the outcome could be on Friday."