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STATE CHAMPS AGAIN: West Hancock beats Grundy Center for fourth Class A title
PREP FOOTBALL | CLASS A STATE CHAMPIONSHIP

STATE CHAMPS AGAIN: West Hancock beats Grundy Center for fourth Class A title

For the fourth time in the West Hancock football program’s storied history, the Eagles are state champions.

But the victory didn’t come without its fair share of drama.

Up by just one score in the Class A state championship game against Grundy Center on Thursday afternoon at the UNI-Dome, the Eagles managed to chew up some clock offensively and hold strong defensively for the final 10 minutes of the game to hold on for a 19-14 victory.

State Final West Hancock 1

West Hancock receives their championship trophy after their victory against Grundy Center on Thursday during the championship game of the state football championships at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls.

“It’s awesome. You can’t get better than this,” senior Mathew Francis said. “13-0. State champs. It’s an unbelievable feeling, and it’s a blessing to be on this team.”

After five combined touchdowns between the two teams, the game came down to the final 2 minutes and 38 seconds. Down 19-14, the Spartans had 80 yards of field between them and a state championship.

There was just one problem.

In between the Spartans and the end zone was a West Hancock defense that hadn’t given up more than one touchdown in a game in the first 12 games of the season. Just because the Eagles had given up two already in the title game didn’t mean they had any less confidence.

“We had confidence the whole time,” senior Braden Walk said. “It was good that they came out and scored the first drive. We knew we were just going to come back and pound it on them. Our defense was going to show up again.”

Showing up was exactly what the Eagles did on that final defensive drive.

But the Spartans, led by senior quarterback Logan Knaack, managed to drive to West Hancock’s 24-yard line in the first two minutes of the drive. Facing a third-and-7 with 12 seconds left and no timeouts, Knaack managed to scramble for 15 yards and slide with two seconds remaining.

The Spartans hurried up and spiked the ball while the chains were moving, but the referees waved it off due to a three second clock run-off.

Realization set in. The Eagles were state champions again.

State Final West Hancock 2

West Hancock hoists their championship trophy after their victory against Grundy Center on Thursday during the championship game of the state football championships at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls.

“It’s a crazy game,” West Hancock head coach Mark Sanger said. “There’s not a whole lot to say. I’m glad we came out on top the way we did. It’s a tough way to lose a game, exciting way to win a game. Two teams that fought real hard.”

The state title is the program’s fourth all-time and second in the past three seasons. The last trophy came in 2019 – also against a Knaack-led Grundy Center team.

But the Spartans managed to knock the Eagles out in the state quarterfinals a season ago. The two programs have a lot of respect for each other.

“It’s basically a rivalry,” senior Parker Means said. “It’s one of those things where you want to be nice to them, but you can’t. We had to fight the whole game and do things that we’ve done all year.”

The Spartans (11-2) started off the game by taking the ball 70 yards on 13 plays, capping it off with a quarterback sneak by Knaack. Grundy Center was able to convert on a fourth-and-2 from the 5-yard line two plays before the score.

An extra point made the score 7-0. The opening drive took up more than seven minutes of clock.

The Eagles (13-0) answered with a long drive of their own. The drive started with sophomore Mitchell Smith taking a quarterback sneak up the gut on fourth-and-1. It ended when Walk took an end-around 24 yards for a touchdown to tie the score, 7-7.

“It’s huge, because if you give the ball back to them and they go up two scores, two scores is huge in a football game,” Sanger said.

The first big defensive play of the day came on Grundy Center’s ensuing offensive possession. The Spartans had a good drive going again, before Knaack’s pass to senior Cole Lehr ricocheted off his hands and was intercepted by West Hancock senior Kane Zuehl.

The Eagles capitalized off the turnover when Francis took a hand off up the middle for 19 yards and a touchdown. The extra point was missed, but the Eagles led, 13-7, with four minutes remaining in the half.

State Final West Hancock 8

West Hancock senior Mathew Francis carries the ball for a touchdown against Grundy Center during the championship game of the state football championships at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls.

Despite two more Grundy Center possessions, and one more from West Hancock, the two teams went into the break locked in a 13-7 game.

West Hancock came out of the half swinging. Senior quarterback Logan Leerar handed the ball to Smith, who launched a 34-yard strike to junior Rylan Barnes for a touchdown. That made the score 19-7 after a failed 2-point conversion.

“We’ve had that play all year,” Sanger said. “We’ve had them all year, we just haven’t had to use them. It’s a big play, and it keeps them honest.”

“We’ve got some playmakers and they showed,” Sanger added. “We hide some playmakers. You know the saying, ‘Let your peacock fly?’ We don’t let them fly here often, unfortunately. But we’re getting better at it. That play was just the tip of the iceberg for what our guys are able to do.”

Grundy Center managed to put together a solid drive on its first possession of the second half, driving all the way to the Eagles’ 19-yard line. But the Eagles held strong on a 4th-and-9 and forced a turnover on downs.

After a three-and-out, the Eagles punted back to the Spartans at the start of the fourth quarter. That’s when the Spartans scored their second, and final, touchdown of the day. Senior Dayne Zinkula took a draw play up the middle for a 9-yard touchdown run to make the score 19-14 with 8:48 remaining in the game.

On the first play of West Hancock’s next offensive drive, Francis fumbled the ball and Grundy Center recovered inside the 25-yard line.

Again, the Eagles held strong defensively on four straight plays, allowing just one yard before forcing a turnover on downs.

“Our team, to describe it, we just don’t quit,” Francis said. “We’re never going to stop until the game is over. No matter what happens in between the start to finish, we’re going to do our best.”

The Eagles chewed up over six minutes of clock offensively before making the final defensive stand to win the football game.

Francis finished the day with 25 carries for 119 yards and a touchdown. He also led the defense with 8.5 total tackles. After breaking his hand at the end of the touchdown run in the first quarter, Walk ended the game with nine carries for 67 yards.

“It feels good. We just brought our school its fourth state title,” Walk said. “Being a part of that is awesome. Being a senior and ending my career 13-0, that’s awesome.”

The win was the program’s first state championship since legendary head coach Bob Sanger’s death in 2020. Bob, Mark’s father, led the program for over five decades before Mark took over the position.

State Final West Hancock 4

West Hancock coach Mark Sanger lifts his arms to the sky after the clock runs out on the Eagles' victory against Grundy Center on Thursday during the championship game of the state football championships at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls.

“Him and coach Perkins lived for this time of year,” Mark Sanger said. “He’d be very proud of them. It was his style of football game. It really was. Just keep working, keep working and keep working. Do the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.”

“There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s smiling.”

Gunnar Davis covers sports. Reach him via email at Gunnar.Davis@GlobeGazette.com or by phone 641-421-0598.

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