(Council Bluffs) -- The Lewis Central boys soccer team’s return to the top of Class 2A and solidification as a perennial power makes head coach James Driver the proper choice for his second KMAland Soccer Coach of the Year honor in the last four seasons.
"The Coach of the Year Award is the ultimate team award," Driver said.
It was another dream season for the Titans as they made up for missed opportunities in 2020 and 2021 and added another state title to their collection.
There were many moments and memories along the way, powered by a determined group of young men eager to make up for lost time, some gritty performances and a pretty gnarly mustache (more on that later).
To fully grasp their 2022 season, you must go back to 2019, when Coach Driver led the program to an unforgettable first-ever state championship run as the No. 7 seed.
Many contributors from that team returned to the roster in 2020, and expectations were high.
Then, COVID canceled the season and left Coach Driver asking, what if?
"The 2020 season was tough," Driver said. "One could argue that was the best team I've been in charge of, but we'll never know."
The Titans returned to play in 2021 and were dominant in the regular season. Unfortunately, they suffered an upset loss to Sioux City West in a substate final, denying them a chance to defend their crown.
"Losing that (2020) season and losing in a heartbreaking manner last year motivated these guys to work hard and hold each other accountable," Driver said. "They worked hard every day at practice, training and games."
Coach Driver's program left little doubt in 2022. They compiled a 13-3 regular-season record, with all their losses coming to Class 3A or out-of-state schools.
Lewis Central opened the postseason with a dominant 6-0 win and returned to the state tournament with a 2-0 win over Glenwood in a rainy substate final.
"These guys played hard all season," Driver said after the win. "We played a really difficult schedule. They came out, battled through these elements -- it feels good to be back."
Their return to Des Moines resembled a business trip through the first two games, as the Titans shut out Humboldt (2-0) in the first round and rode a fast start to a semifinal win over Newton (2-1).
Then came a chance to reclaim what was once theirs: a state title.
To do that, they had to get past top-seeded Pella.
Brayden Shepard gave the Titans an early 1-0 lead with a goal in the first six minutes, but Pella countered late in the first half and controlled offensive possession for most of the half.
Halftime couldn't have come at a better time for Coach Driver's team.
"We were pretty fortunate to get to halftime at 1-1," Driver said. "We just had to adjust our midfield. We talked about that at halftime."
The adjustments worked, and senior star Colton Costello added a pair of goals to seal the second title in four years with a 3-1 win.
"That's a testament to the guys," Driver said. "They trusted me. The credit goes to the players. They worked hard and left it all out there."
The dominant second half in the state championship game brought the last couple of years full circle for the Titans.
Driver says he knew his team was special following their May 7th trip to the Bondurant-Farrar Tournament. The Titans went 1-1 that day with a win over Waukee and a loss to Iowa City West. But separate from the outcome, their resolve impressed him.
"We played two quality opponents that weekend," he said. "We always believed we had the pieces to make the state run, but we weren't sure we had the mentality it takes to be a champion. That belief became a reality for me during that tournament. After those two games, I felt like this team had the grit, determination and hard work -- the type of things it takes to be a state champion."
While the Titans were gritty and business-like, they had some fun along the way. Particularly with Coach Driver's facial hair.
In 2019, Driver made a deal with his team: make state, and they could cut his hair into a mohawk.
That led to a similar idea in 2022. And the end result was partially inspired by the hit Apple TV series "Ted Lasso."
"They wanted to shave my head bald," Driver said. "I couldn't find myself doing that, so the next best thing was to shave my beard into a mustache. I was trying to give my best Ted Lasso impression, and the guys thought I nailed it."
The well-mustachioed Driver has taken the Lewis Central boys soccer program to heights it had never reached before. With a successful culture and plenty of talent in the Council Bluffs area, the Titans might not be done winning titles and serving as Coach Driver's barber.
"With all the opportunities provided, I believe the future for Titans soccer is bright," he said. "I'm excited for the future of our program."
Driver is the first two-time KMAland Soccer Coach of the Year. Driver's honor marks the fourth consecutive year the award goes to a Council Bluffs coach. Abraham Lincoln girls coach Robbie Miller won this in 2021, and former Lewis Central girls coach Chris Von Mende was the 2018 Coach of the Year.
Click below to hear the full interview with Driver.