When the West Hancock football team finds it groove, it seems like no one can keep it from a win. And after being eliminated last season in the state semifinal game, this time, the Eagles were not going to be denied.
Going up against Woodbury Central in the Class A state semifinal on Friday, the No. 1 Eagles scored quick and often. In the end, West Hancock came away with a 49-20 win and a chance to bring home the school’s third state title.
“It’s relief right now,” coach Mark Sanger said. “After a game, it feels good to know you’ve got another week. We’re going to enjoy this one for the weekend, and then get back to work.”
The Eagles got on the board early in the first quarter with a six-yard touchdown run from senior Josef Smith. A few minutes later, the normally run-focused Eagles scored on a trick-play touchdown pass from Smith to tight end Tanner Hagen, to put West Hancock up 14-0.
Smith intercepted a pass on the Wildcats' next drive, and ran it all the way down to near the Eagles’ 20. A few plays after that, Smith ran the ball in from the six-yard line, and the Eagles led by 21.
The Wildcats finally got on the board with five minutes left in the half, on a 59-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jase Manker to Ethan Copeland. The touchdown made the score West Hancock 21, Woodbury Central 7.
On the ensuing West Hancock possession, Tate Hagen broke off a big run to put the Eagles within scoring position. Hagen then ran the ball 11 yards for a first down at the nine yard line, after which Smith ran the ball in for yet another touchdown.
“We had a lot of big blocks from the start,” Smith said after the game. “I got outside on the corners, and beat them to the end-zone. It felt good.”
After halftime, the Eagles immediately came out swinging. On the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter, senior Tate Hagen ran the ball 69 yards for a touchdown, to boost the West Hancock lead to 35-7.
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The Eagles then recovered a fumble at the 16 yard line on Woodbury Central’s next drive, and then scored on a six-yard touchdown run from Hagen to take a 42-7 lead.
The Wildcats recovered a fumble at their own 22 yard line a few drives later, when the ball popped out of Tate Hagen’s arms on a tackle. On the next play, wide receiver Beau Klingensmith caught an 86-yard pass that looked destined to be a score, but he was tripped up by an Eagles defender at the two yard line. On fourth and one, the Wildcats punched the ball in for a touchdown for their second score of the day.
The Eagles’ final score came with 4:37 left in the game, when freshman Rylan Barnes took the ball on an outside run for a touchdown. That score gave West Hancock a 49-14 lead. The Wildcats scored one last time in the game on a 13 yard touchdown pass to Klingensmith.
But when the Eagles got the ball with 37 seconds left on the clock, all they had to do was kneel. With longtime head coach Bob Sanger watching from the stands, the Eagles took home a dominant win.
"It's something that you have on your checklist the whole time," Mark Sanger said. "It's a lot of work to get back here. It's a long road to get back, but we're back. We earned our spot in the championship. We're not done yet, but they're definitely on track with where they want to be."
Tate Hagen finished the game with 244 yards rushing on 19 carries, with two touchdowns. Kelly had 86 yards on 13 carries, while Smith finished with 90 yards and three scores.
Woodbury Central finishes its season with a 10-2 overall record. With the victory, West Hancock advances to the Class A state title game. The Eagles will play Grundy Center on Thursday at 1:30 p.m. at the UNI-Dome for the championship.
For the West Hancock seniors, the opportunity to play for a championship in their final game is something that they couldn’t help but smile about.
“It’s a dream come true,” Tate Hagen said. “Our team has been waiting for this our entire lives. Our seniors, we’ve all wanted this since day one. Now it’s coming.”