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PREP FOOTBALL | CLASS A STATE CHAMPIONSHIP

West Hancock football ready to face familiar foe for Class A state championship

Offseason workouts. Grueling practices in the heat and the cold. Tough games on Friday nights.

All of that has led to this moment for the West Hancock football team.

The Eagles have a chance to do something that only three teams in the history of the storied West Hancock football program have done in the past on Thursday afternoon at the UNI-Dome.

Win a state championship.

State FBall West Hancock vs. East Buchanan 5

West Hancock junior Rylan Barnes carries the ball for a touchdown against East Buchanan on Thursday during the semifinal round of the state football championships at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls.

"It's everything," junior Rylan Barnes said last week. "We're a small school kind of known for our football and sports programs. We know what we've got to do next week. We've got to come down here and handle business."

One team stands between West Hancock and the program's fourth state championship trophy.

And it's a team the Eagles are all too familiar with.

This will be the third consecutive season that West Hancock's final game of the year will be against Grundy Center. The Eagles beat the Spartans, 21-17, in the Class A state championship in 2019, but the Spartans returned the favor in 2020, beating the Eagles, 20-14, in the quarterfinals a year ago.

"The history itself makes it a bit of a rivalry," West Hancock head coach Mark Sanger said. "But the thing is it's a new group. Some guys have been in it and some guys haven't. It's the seniors' time to make their mark. It's kind of what they want to accomplish and how they want to end their career."

State FBall West Hancock vs. East Buchanan 2

West Hancock senior Llan Martinez, center, attempts to make a hole in the East Buchanan defense as sophomore Mitchell Smith drives the ball on Thursday during the semifinal round of the state football championships at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls.

The No. 4 Spartans (11-1) are led by dual-threat senior quarterback Logan Knaack, who leads the team in both passing (1,524 yards, 20 touchdowns) and rushing (784 yards, 14 touchdowns).

Knaack was the quarterback for the team in the 2019 state championship game and the 2020 quarterfinal matchup. Sanger and his team know him all too well.

"We're very familiar with them. Number 10 is still around," Sanger said. "They're well-organized and play good defense. They'll spread you out on offense and attack you from all angles. It's a lot of the same old, same old. They're in the championship game for a reason."

The Spartans' only loss on the season came in a 13-10 game with Class 1A state semifinalist Dike-New Hartford in Week 2.

Since then, Grundy Center has rattled off 10 straight victories, most recently a 28-7 win over Woodbury Central in the state semifinals last Thursday.

In that 10-game stretch, the Spartan defense hasn't given up more than one touchdown in a game.

But Grundy Center will have quite the challenge in stopping a top-ranked West Hancock offense that can beat defenses in a multitude of ways.

"Offensively, we've got to be efficient," Sanger said. "We've got to take advantage of every opportunity, every drive that we have."

The Eagles (12-0) are led by senior fullback Mathew Francis, who has rushed for three touchdowns in the last two games. He has rushed for 1,804 yards and 28 touchdowns on the season.

When West Hancock wants to shake things up offensively, the team has shown a shotgun formation where sophomore Mitchell Smith takes over at the quarterback position. Designed to stretch defenses out, the Eagles can run or pass efficiently in the offense.

State FBall West Hancock vs. East Buchanan 12

West Hancock sophomore Mitchell Smith looks to make a pass with pressure from East Buchanan senior Connor Williams during the semifinal round of the state football championships at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls.

As strong as the offense has looked, the Eagles' defense might be even better. It's been a brick wall all season. West Hancock hasn't given up more than one touchdown in a game all year, and has recorded five shutouts, including a 37-0 win over East Buchanan last Thursday in the semifinals.

“We’re confident with our defense,” Francis said after the win. “Like coach Sanger preaches every week, if they don’t score, we can’t lose. That’s exactly what we do every time.”

Despite how big of a game Thursday's championship is, Sanger and his staff have tried to keep the week leading up to it as normal as they can.

Business as usual, as Sanger put it.

But it's impossible to deny how big another state championship would be for the town of Britt and the west side of Hancock County.

It's the program's eighth appearance in a title game, and the players on the team want to write a happy ending to their chapter in the story of the West Hancock football program.

"I think it's huge for the program and huge for the community," Sanger said. "It's still a football game. The biggest part is the process of getting there. How you work with the kids and how they work together. The lessons learned and all that.

"But you know what? They also make scoreboards for a reason. We're there to try to win it. You didn't go through all that work throughout the year and the buildup to this point to stop now. We're absolutely trying to win a game, but there's a lot more to it than the end result."

The Eagles will play Grundy Center in the Class A state title game at 1 p.m. on Thursday at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls.

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

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