As the final whistle blew at the UNI-Dome on Thursday, the West Hancock sideline, and the crowd that had come to support them, let an elated and victorious yell.
With a 21-17 win over Grundy Center, West Hancock claimed the Class A football title.
With a four-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter, and going up against the high-powered Spartans offense, tension was running high. But a dropped pass on 4th-and-9 from Grundy Center with two minutes left, and a subsequent well-timed first down from lead back Tate Hagen, sealed the game and delivered a title to the towns of Britt and Kanawha.
"It was an emotional roller-coaster," coach Mark Sanger said. "A lot of ups, and a lot of downs. Not so much in between. But sometimes championship football is ugly. It's finding a way to win, and there were a lot of turns along the way. We'll take it any way we can get it."
In his final high school football game, Tate Hagen ran wild. The Eagles’ senior back rushed for 231 yards on 36 carries, with three touchdowns.
"You've heard the saying, ‘Dance with the girl you brought?’” Sanger said. "He's been our workhorse for three years. Why wouldn't you put it in his hands if he can get the game back to where we want it to be? He didn't disappoint. He busted his butt. I think he's got a broken hand he just finished the game with too, but he is a tough kid. He wouldn't rather be anywhere else."
After the game, Tate Hagen held the state title trophy in his arms, with a big smile on his face.
“I just have to thank everybody on my o-line, and the fans. The energy in this place is crazy,” he said. “It’s just amazing to be a part of. Go Eagles.”
The Spartans got on the board first in the first quarter, when quarterback Logan Knaack ran the ball 57 yards on the first play of the drive for a touchdown. At the end of the first quarter, Grundy Center led, 7-0.
On their first drive of the second quarter, the Eagles finally got their offense rolling. On second and six from the 39, the Eagles threw a rare pass, this one a 23 yard completion to senior Tanner Hagen, to give the Eagles first and goal at the five. On the next play, Tate Hagen took the ball five yards for the touchdown. The drive still ended in disappointment however, as the point after attempt went wide, and the Eagles trailed, 7-6.
Penalties were an issue for the Eagles in the first half. On one drive midway through the second, West Hancock was flagged three separate times, including two pass-interference calls. This led to 35 free yards for the Spartans, who eventually scored a field-goal on the drive, to extend their lead to 10-6.
Just before halftime, the Eagles took the ball 70 yards for a score, as Tate Hagen finished the drive with a two-yard touchdown run. Senior Josef Smith then completed a pass to Tanner Hagen for the two-point conversion, and the Eagles took a 14-10 lead.
The Eagles also had seven penalties in the half, for 69 yards. For the game, the Eagles finished with 10 penalties for 99 yards.
“We kind of reverted back in that first half,” Sanger said. “That number 10 (Knaack) gave us all sorts of fits. Our guys weren’t used to having a guy run around on them, and not be able to contain him. That got us out of sorts a little bit.”
Knaack finished the game with 106 rushing yards and 87 yards through the air.
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Tate Hagen scored his third touchdown of the game with 5:25 left in the third quarter, running the ball 27 yards on the drive, including the 10-yarder for the score. After the PAT, the Eagles held a 21-10 lead. At 2:48, Grundy Center pulled off a 4th-and-11 trick play, passing the ball 11 yards to Nick Ascher for the touchdown. The score pulled the Spartans within four points, at 21-17.
Then, with two minutes left in the game, the Spartans threw a crucial pass on fourth-and-9 that was dropped by the receiver, giving the Eagles the ball on downs. After a 12-yard run from Tate Hagen for a first down, the Eagles ran the ball twice, and kneeled to seal the victory.
Aside from Hagen, Josef Smith also had a big day, rushing for 114 yards on 18 carries. The Eagles beat the Spartans in total offense, 420 yards to 257.
The stadium Jumbotron repeatedly showed longtime head coach Bob Sanger late in the game, to big cheers from the West Hancock crowd.
"I'm about as happy as anybody can be, but I guarantee you, there is nobody in this building happier than he is," Mark Sanger said. "That I can guarantee you."
The elder Sanger has had to take a step back from his coaching duties this season due to health problems, but he is still a presence in the program. For Mark and the rest of the coaching staff, learning from a Hall-of-Fame coach was instrumental in getting the team to a championship level.
"He is the one who prepared us assistant coaches to be able to do what we do," Mark said. "We learned from the best. He's one of the best, and we're trying to carry it on. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
“I don’t think there is a better way we could end the season than to do this for him.”
All season long, the Eagles have given credit to the crowd. With a title on the line, it seemed as if their entire town had made its way to Cedar Falls.