Game of the Week. Game of the Year. Call it what you want, but this is the one St. Ansgar and West Hancock have been waiting for all season.
The stakes couldn’t be higher for tonight’s Class A, District 3 matchup with each team vying for a district title. Each at 5-0, a win and that team is in the driver's seat. The Saints and Eagles didn’t picture it coming down to anything else.
“Just knowing that we’re playing for a district championship,” St. Ansgar senior Dayton Smith said. “Not a lot of teams get to play in games like that and we all realize that so we know to make the most of it. It’s not our first time being here, and playing it last year, just seeing all the people gives you goosebumps.”
Last year’s game had similar stakes with both teams undefeated as well, and the atmosphere didn’t disappoint.
With fans stuffed all the way around the football field in St. Ansgar, the Saints managed to pull away for a 28-20 victory to win the district. It’s a game neither has forgotten.
“That motivates us more that we were that close last year and we want to do better this year,” West Hancock senior McCoy Yeakel said. “We want to be better than last year’s team and show those seniors that we’re better than them last year.”
Expect nothing less than each team’s best this year.
St. Ansgar comes in with a 7-0 overall record and has won 23 regular season games in a row.
The Saints are led by senior back Dayton Smith, who has piled up 853 yards and 11 touchdowns in six games — St. Ansgar didn’t play one game due to a forfeit by North Butler. But it’s not only Smith the Eagles are concerned about. St. Ansgar has a whole host of players capable of busting something loose.
After Smith, Josh Van Vliet has 503 yards and quarterback Collin Kramer is at 341. Each are averaging more than 10 yards per carry. Toss in Jack Sievert and Ethan Kirchgatter, and West Hancock has a lot to pay attention to.
The Eagles say they’re more than ready, though.
“It’s for the district title. What more can you say than that?” West Hancock coach Bob Sanger said. “And it’s kind of like it isn’t something they give us, it’s something we have to earn. So we have to put our best foot forward and answer that.”
And when you throw in last year’s result, consider this West Hancock team hungry.
“This is going to be huge,” senior Hunter Hagen said. “We’ve been thinking about this since we started. We want a shot at them and then Bishop Garrigan (who the Eagles lost to in the playoffs), too.”
When it comes to stopping West Hancock on offense, there are no secrets, and St. Ansgar coach Drew Clevenger said with all of the knowns, it comes down simply to executing their game plan.
The Saints have their sights set on trying to slow an Eagles’ run game which features a host of backs having big seasons.
Yeakel has contributed in all facets of the game with a team-high 783 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground, and he’s added four punt returns.
Sophomores Tate Hagen and Josef Smith have also put their best foot forth. Hagen has 686 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns while Smith has 497 and seven touchdowns.
“We need to be the best version of ourselves (tonight),” Clevenger said. “I don’t think we’re going to go over there and shut down West Hancock — I haven’t really seen any team do that in at least my 18 years of coaching.”
It’s a St. Ansgar team in prime position to win another district title, though, and the kids say they’re ready to carry on the tradition.
“It’s a great feeling and a sense of pride,” St. Ansgar senior Dylan Bissen said. “All the people who came before you, you can make them proud.”
Added Smith, “Just seeing the atmosphere, everybody is going to come ready to play for sure. Knowing what’s on the line — a fourth district title in a row for us and we’ve got a regular-season win streak going — that should really heighten our performance.”