West Hancock head coach Mark Sanger couldn't be any more proud of his football team, even though the Eagles fell short of defending their Class A state title this year with a 20-14 loss to Grundy Center in the state quarterfinals on Friday.
For Sanger, although the loss stung, there was plenty for his team to be proud of after Friday’s defeat.
“We knew it was going to be a hard-fought game,” Sanger said. “You can’t hang your head with this. I’m proud of our season. It sucks, and we’re not satisfied with losing obviously, but we told them before that you don’t get opportunities to play the number one team in the state, on your home field, for the last time you are going to play at home."
Although the Eagles did not make it back to the UNI-Dome in their quest for another championship, the team never gave up against Grundy Center, and until the clock ran out, they still had a shot at a comeback.
With a little over two minutes remaining in the game, Grundy Center junior Dexter Whitehill intercepted a pass by West Hancock quarterback Cayson Barnes and returned the ball to the 17 yard line. Three plays later, the Spartans scored on a 21-yard touchdown pass to senior Nick Ascher, to take a 13-point lead.
When the Eagles' next series ended in a turnover on downs, it looked like the game was essentially finished. But the West Hancock managed to stuff the line on Grundy Center’s next drive, and force a turnover on downs.
After a 19-yard run from senior Cole Kelly, an eight-yard pass to junior Braden Walk, and a pair of penalties on the Grundy Center defense, the Eagles scored on a touchdown pass to Walk to pull within six points with only two seconds remaining in the game.
The Eagles were hoping for a miracle play on the ensuing onside kick, but the Spartans recovered the ball to finally lock down the win and advance to the state semifinals.
"They busted their butt and left it all out there,” Sanger said.
The game was a battle between two of the state’s best teams and was a highly-anticipated rematch of last season’s Class A state title game, which the Eagles won, 21-17. The Spartans came in as the state’s top defensive team in points allowed, with West Hancock at number four. Though Grundy Center and West Hancock also both had elite offenses, defense ruled the day.
Grundy Center’s 20 points against the Eagles was the team’s fewest since its 20-14 win over Panorama on Aug. 28. The Spartans averaged 43.33 points per game this season, but struggled to get into a rhythm against West Hancock’s front four defensive lineman.
The Spartans took the early lead with a 62 yard opening drive, which ended with a six-yard touchdown run from senior running back Zach Opheim at the 8:18 mark of the first quarter.
But that lead quickly evaporated as Walk fielded the ensuing kickoff for the Eagles and ran it 80 yards for the game-tying touchdown.
That 7-7 score then held until late in the third quarter.
Neither team seemed particularly keen to punt the ball. Grundy Center went for it on fourth down eight times in the game, and was successful four times, while turning the ball over on downs four times as well.
The Eagles went for it on fourth down four times, and were successful once, on a fake punt in the fourth quarter that gave the Eagles a first down at the 36 yard line.
West Hancock finished the game with 200 yards of total offense, while Grundy Center had 284, led by Opheim, who had 124 rushing yards on 25 carries.
After the Eagles fell behind by 13 points with two minutes left, there was no doubt in Sanger’s mind that the game was still far from over. The Eagles stopped the Spartans next drive, quickly scored and were just one play away from having a chance at a game-winning score. Only when the Spartans recovered the onside kick did West Hancock’s chance at victory end.
“These guys are never going to give up on us, we’re sure as heck not going to give up on them as coaches,” Sanger said. “We had three timeouts, and I knew they weren’t going to do anything crazy. The probability isn’t good, but it’s still probability. We owe it to these kids to go down to the last snap.”
With the loss came the end for West Hancock’s eight seniors, including quarterback Cayson Barnes, running backs Cole Kelly and Ben Martinez, offensive linemen Tanner Thompson and Justin Ausborn, Bryer Subject, Luke DeWaard, and Chase Kronemann.
After the game, Sanger told the seniors to stick around the facility as long as they wanted, to enjoy their final moments with their football teammates.
“I think it's great what we have done,” Barnes said. “I think a lot of people under looked us because we did lose a lot of seniors from last year, but we proved to them that we are still a pretty good football team. I think we had a pretty good year.”
Kelly, who finished the game with 135 yards on 26 rushes, with two sacks on defense, echoed his quarterback's thoughts. After the program’s 2019 state title, the team lost 12 seniors to graduation, including most of the offensive line and both of its top two running backs.
Despite those losses, the Eagles finished 9-2, won the district and conference titles, and made it back to the state quarterfinals as Kelly finished with 1,890 yards on the ground and led Class A with 33 rushing touchdowns.
"We really showed everybody we're not nothing. We have something here," Kelly said. "I'm proud of my teammates and what we all accomplished this year."
The Eagles end their season with a 9-2 overall record.
Grundy Center will play St. Albert on Friday at 12:30 p.m., in the state semifinals at the UNI-Dome.
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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.
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