Rivalry games are one of the things that make football so fun.
Ohio St. vs. Michigan. Green Bay vs. Chicago.
For football fans in Hancock County, home to just under 11,000 people, the annual game between West Hancock and Garner-Hayfield-Ventura (GHV) is a can't-miss event.
On Friday, GHV pulled off a feat that no other team had accomplished in nearly two years, beating defending Class A state champion West Hancock by a score of 14-6, and holding standout Eagles' running back Cole Kelly to an average of just three yards per carry.
“He’s a big dude,” Cardinals senior linebacker Brockway Gouge said of Kelly. “He’s a stud and he runs hard and downhill. We stopped him, and I have no complaints about that. He had a couple big runs, and good for him.”
Kelly, who rushed for 1,184 yards a season ago, ran for just 73 yards against GHV's stifling defense.
After the game, GHV coach Darrell Schumacher was effusive in his praise for his senior-led defense. The Cardinals allowed West Hancock, which led the state last season with 5,312 yards on the ground, to just 123 rushing yards and a single touchdown.
The Eagles got the scoring started in the second quarter with a three-yard touchdown run by Kelly, which came at the end of a 74-yard drive. The team missed the ensuing PAT, and those six points were all that the team would get on offense.
The Cardinals responded to West Hancock’s score later in the quarter with a rushing touchdown of their own.
GHV had the ball at the goal-line, and on three consecutive plays, was stuffed by the Eagles’ defense. But a crucial offsides penalty on West Hancock gave GHV another chance, and senior Isaac Knutson ran the ball in for a score on fourth-and-three, with 1:29 left in the third quarter.
GHV lucked into its next score, thanks to a crucial mistake by the Eagles. With just over a minute left in the third quarter, the Eagles were set to punt. The snap to punter Cayson Barnes was low, and the officials ruled that Barnes had kneeled with the ball at the three yard line, to give the Cardinals the ball.
Knutson then ran the ball into the end-zone again, and GHV took a 14-6 lead.
In the fourth, West Hancock's first three drives resulted in a punt and two turnovers on downs, but the Eagles had a final shot after an interception by sophomore defender Rylan Barnes with 2:36 left in the game.
On the ensuing drive, Kelly caught a 26-yard pass from quarterback Cayson Barnes, to give West Hancock a first-and-10 at the 33. As they did all game long, the GHV defense refused to break. Barnes threw three straight incomplete passes to turn the ball over on downs, and effectively end the game.
“It stings, there is no doubt about that,” West Hancock head coach Mark Sanger said. “They’re a good football team. We played hard. I don’t fault our guys' effort one bit. We just made too many mistakes to win against a good football team.”
The two teams are separated by just 12 miles, and the two sets of players know each other very well. When time comes to put the pads on, however, all the friendly feelings go out the window.
“We know everybody on their team, and they know us,” senior GHV running back Joe Pringnitz said. “I consider a lot of them friends. Things change on the football field.”
Even aside from the battle for county bragging rights, Friday’s game had a little bit more meaning than usual.
In addition to finally beginning the season amid the COVID-19 pandemic that wiped out the spring sports season, the game was the first to happen at Bob Sanger Field since the death of the Eagles’ long-time head football coach this past February.
Before the game, the teams stood on the field as Bob’s voice echoed across the field, in a tribute video put together by West Hancock.
“Bob Sanger was a good friend of mine,” Schumacher said. “It’s hard to sit there, look at the sidelines, and see him not there. But Mark does a tremendous job. I started my head coaching career here at Garner-Hayfield, and Bob Sanger helped me a lot.”
With one game down, and the biggest game on their schedule marked into the win column, the Cardinals head into the final six games of the regular season with some wind under their wings.
“I don’t care what anybody says about Valley and Dowling," Schumacher said. "In North Iowa, there are two teams that have the greatest rivalry. It’s West Hancock and Garner-Hayfield-Ventura.”
For Schumacher’s seniors, the win meant a lot.
To come in and beat the defending state champion, and knock off one of the top-ranked teams in Class A? That’s a pretty great start to the year.
“This is the most important game,” Gouge said. “For both sides, I’m pretty sure. Each of us look forward to competing. To me, this is the best game all year.”
West Hancock will play it next game on Friday at Forest City, while GHV will play at St. Ansgar.
Shane Lantz covers sports for the Globe Gazette. You can reach him at Shane.Lantz@GlobeGazette.com, or by phone at 641-421-0526. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneMLantz.