For almost a century, Clarke was the only college in Dubuque without a football team.
Now, ironically, the Pride are the only college game in town. Loras, Dubuque and UW-Platteville — all NCAA Division III programs — pushed their seasons to the spring thanks to the pandemic. The NAIA, in which Clarke plays, is moving forward with fall gridiron meaning that for the first time, the young Pride program has the local college football stage all to itself.
That’s something that hadn’t occurred to Clarke’s second-year coach, Miguel Regalado, until Wednesday. But when asked about it, Regalado could be heard grinning through the phone. He said he’s relishing the opportunity for all eyes to be on his team.
“I’m 100 percent excited about it,” said Regalado, days before his team opens the season by welcoming Benedictine to Dalzell Field on Saturday. “We’re going to be the only team in the city playing college football and I’m absolutely excited to show what we’re all about.”
There are more ideal ways to lead a program into its second year of live competition. The pandemic shut down Clarke’s spring scrimmage and canceled team offseason workouts throughout the summer. Regalado and staff weren’t able to work with players again until Aug. 9, meaning that nearly five months had gone by without much organized team activity.
Then, Clarke’s original season opener at Evangel on Sept. 12 was postponed due to a positive coronavirus test. When the season finally arrives on Saturday as the Pride welcome Benedictine to Dalzell Field, Regalado said it will have been long worth the wait.
“Our kids are relieved to finally be playing a football game,” he said. “Every single day is something different. Every day you’re waiting to see who’s been (exposed to the virus). We’ve preached to our kids to adjust, adapt and overcome.
“The second we step through the fence for practice is the best two hours of our day. We tell the kids to just come onto the field and have fun. The best two hours of my day are on that practice field, just getting back to something normal. And I think on Saturday, we’ll overcome.”
In its inaugural season (2019), Clarke football made a lot more noise than outsiders may have expected, Regalado said. Despite scoring on the opening drive in program history, the Pride limped to an 0-6 start. In Week 8, with visiting Peru State, Clarke earned its first-ever victory, 18-17. A week later the Pride beat Graceland for the program’s first winning streak.
Those were the only two wins Clarke saw as the Pride finished 2-9 overall. But when Regalado reflects on Year 1, the highlights for him are the flashes of how badly this team wants to win.
“I learned how hungry this team is to be great,” Regalado said. “I don’t think anybody expected us to win a game. We had three guys who played college football before, the rest were just babies. I was really, really pleased to see how hard they competed. They just competed their butts off every single week.”
With something to build on, the expectations are higher this year for Clarke.
The Pride bring back five all-Heart of America Conference players in second-teamers Jaydon Brooks (cornerback) and Max Steffen (wide receiver) and honorable mention players Jacob Handley (linebacker), Israel Hernandez (defensive end) and Michael Nacnac (linebacker). Clarke also returns its leading rusher in Jordan Brown (551 yards, two TDs) and Regalado said some key offseason additions ought to set the Pride up nicely in 2020.
Baker University transfer Brandon Mueller will lineup behind center on Saturday for Clarke, with top 2019 passers Tim Evitt (47-for-73, 314 yards, four TDs, three INTs) and Kenyon Williams (115-for-222, 991 yards, nine TDs, 13 INTs) on standby.
What actually happens on Saturday is anyone’s best guess. Benedictine went 8-3 in 2019 and handed Clarke a 73-14 road shellacking.
Regalado is looking to tap into his team’s hunger to win, and believes that clean, improved play is coming up to Clarke.
“I expect us to be competitive in every single game and it starts on Saturday,” Regalado said. “I believe Saturday will show us how far we’ve come. My expectations are to see a much cleaner product on the field.”