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The “O-Bolts” era ends in Solon

Liberty falls 14-7 to unbeaten Spartans in 3A football playoff
The Liberty High varsity football team walks off the field at Solon High School with their Class 3A football playoffs participant trophy after a 14-7 loss to the undefeated Solon Spartans. It was the final game for the “Original,” or “O-Bolts” who pioneered Liberty’s football program as Iowa City West High freshmen in 2016.

SOLON– Friday, Nov. 1, was bittersweet for Liberty High School as the Lightning celebrated the first playoff appearance for the varsity football team, and bid farewell to the “Original,” or “O-Bolts,” the seniors who have worn Liberty’s black, purple and silver for four years on the gridiron.
The Bolts faced the undefeated Solon Spartans in a Class 3A first round playoff game in Solon, and fell 14-7. The Spartans did all of their damage in the first half with a touchdown on their first possession, and the second just inside the second quarter.
Quarterback Drake Woody connected with Kelby Telander on a 32-yard pass for the Lightning’s only touchdown of the night in the final seconds of the first half. While the Bolts had a few opportunities in the second half, Solon’s defense hampered them at every turn on a cold night with rain throughout the majority of the game. Likewise, the Lightning’s defense held the Spartans at bay throughout the second half.
The Bolts finished the season at 7-3 while 10-0 Solon advanced to the second round, and will host Pella on Friday, Nov. 8. The winner will move on to the Class 3A semifinals at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls.
Liberty’s football program started in 2016 when a group of 21 eighth graders spent part of their summer in football camp before starting their freshman year at Iowa City West High. Liberty High was under construction, and the Iowa City Community School District had decreed that once open, freshmen and sophomores in Liberty’s attendance area (primarily North Liberty) would attend the new school in an attempt to relieve overcrowding at West. The future Liberty students were the first to suit up for Liberty, while still attending West High.
The “O-Bolts” competed in the CRANDIC league battling future Mississippi Valley Conference (MVC) rivals Cedar Rapids Kennedy, Linn-Mar, City High and Cedar Rapids Prairie (where Coach Jeff Gordon had coached previously). The freshman season ended on a 5-4 note. The first season was all about “setting the tone,” Gordon said. “Not just for this program, but for this school and the community. We give them adversity that they have to conquer, because we always tell them, ‘You’ll have to face adversity, and it’s how you respond that defines who you are, not just as a football player but as a person.”
As sophomores, the Bolts were looking for anybody anywhere to play against as Liberty was unaffiliated with any athletic conference. Liberty joined the MVC in 2018. Without a conference, the Iowa High School Athletic Association granted waivers allowing teams to play an additional game so the Bolts would be able to compete. This led to an irregular schedule with Monday, Thursday and even Saturday games against teams such as Waverly-Shell Rock, Cedar Rapids Xavier and West Delaware. While the school was open for business, the athletic complex had not yet been built, and was awaiting passage of a massive $192 million bond issue to pay for it. This led to a second season of Liberty borrowing City High and West High’s fields. The Bolts went 6-3 on the season.
Last year, the Bolts began varsity play, with Gordon still at the helm, having moved from freshman coach to sophomore coach to varsity coach. Liberty was placed in Class 3A, District 5 along with nearby Clear Creek Amana (CCA), Clinton, North Scott, Central DeWitt and Davenport Assumption. Liberty went 3-6 overall, and 1-4 in the district, but also were able to play in their own brand-new stadium on the grounds of Liberty High School.
This year the Lightning retaliated for a loss to City High last year (in non-district play), knocked off the Clippers of CCA in the second clash of the “Boats” vs. the “Bolts” and steamrolled Clinton 56-0 on their way to a second-place finish in the district, and a spot among the top-16 teams in Class 3A in the playoffs.
After the loss to the Spartans, Gordon emerged from the locker room to meet with the media.
“It’s not the way that we wanted it to go, but it kind of epitomizes what this first group is,” he said. “Hats off to Solon. We hope the best for them. They played a great game tonight, and we just didn’t make the plays we had to.
“That’s really on coaching, not on the effort from our kids,” he added. “They played hard and I’m proud of them.”
The Bolts lose seniors Ryan Nugent, Jack Ankenbauer, Carter Fedeler, Ben Houselog, Cole Tuttle, Kaleb Williams, Dawson Zimmerman, Greg Mitchell, Ben Kruger, Drake Woody, Mike Luyeye, Brian Lively, Tate Happel, Harrison Voigt, Damion Wilson, Sam Nicklaus, Evan Swartzendruber, Max Lenane, Alec Boldt, Josh Kirk, Ben Campbell and Andres Estrada.
Four years ago, Gordon said, “We tell them (the 21 OBs) being ‘first’ shouldn’t define you. That’s not special. That’s when you were born and where you live. What we do with that will define us, and if you leave a legacy and a culture in place for this community and future Bolts and people who go to Liberty… there’s no limits. Be the best you want to be, and that’s really how we’re gonna judge them.” The OBs have four years to leave a legacy, he added. “They could really build something special.”
Reflecting on the game, and the four-year journey, Gordon added, “The odds were stacked against them and they just fought and believed. Their legacy will last a long time.”