CEDAR FALLS (Nov. 19) -- When the post-game trophy presentation and celebrating were all over, Harlan Community football coach Todd Bladt huddled his team together one last time on the UNI-Dome turf.
“One more thing, gentleman,” he announced. “Business is finished!”
Exactly one year removed from a 30-6 title game loss to North Scott, the top-ranked Cyclones completed their mission on Friday, capping a perfect season with a hard-fought 42-28 win over No. 2 Boyden-Hull/Rock Valley in the Class 3A state championship game.
The thrilling victory halted a 12-year title drought for HCHS (13-0), which earned the program’s state-leading 13th football championship trophy and 100th playoff win in 40 all-time appearances. The Cyclones have also played in more state title games (22) than any program in Iowa.
“I tell you what, it’s awesome. Thirteen is coming home,” said HCHS junior quarterback Teagon Kasperbauer, who threw for 273 yards and two touchdowns while breaking Zach Osborn’s school record for single-season passing yards with 3,307.
Kasperbauer, who was four years old when HCHS won its last football title in 2009, atoned big time all season after being intercepted seven times in the 2020 title game defeat.
“This is awesome. This is redemption,” he said. “We had unfinished business coming in so we finished it out and (we’re) bringing it on home.”
Senior defensive end Will McLaughlin, who opened Friday’s game with a sack, said the team has had a sour taste in its mouth since last November.
“Since June our motto has been, ‘Our business is unfinished,’ and we finished it,” he said. “We’ve been fighting for this for 364 days... [Time to] get myself a ring.”
Junior Aidan Hall, who scored on an interception return for the second straight game inside the dome, had two total touchdowns and led the Cyclones with four solo tackles and three assists.
“I thought... we just all played together. We played for each other, we played with each other and we all played well,” he said.
HCHS never trailed against an outstanding Nighthawk squad, scoring on its first drive of the game and taking a 21-7 lead on Hall’s pick-six at the end the first quarter.
From that point on, Boyden-Hull/Rock Valley (12-1) cut the margin to seven points on three separate occasions. The Cyclones answered all three times with touchdown drives of 64, 64 and 65 yards, respectively. They led 35-21 following a wild first half, then came up with three critical defensive stands in the fourth quarter.
HCHS stopped the Nighthawks on downs at the 13-yard line with 6:56 remaining and clinched the win on Wil Neuharth’s end zone interception and 22-yard return with :52 to go.
B-H/RV outgained the Cyclones by 80 yards (396-316) and looked every bit the part of a championship contender with its senior-dominant lineup. The Nighthawks are now 0-5 against Harlan in the playoffs.
“It’s just special to get back here and make an impact and get done what we thought we could get done... guys making plays. We were able to make more plays than them,” Bladt said.
“Man, kudos to Boyden-Hull. They had a fantastic football team, they’re well coached, they had a great game plan against us. Our guys just stepped up and made some big plays and reaped the benefits of it.”
Friday completed a trifecta, of sorts, for Bladt, who has now won championships at HCHS as a player in 1997 and 1998, an assistant coach in 2009 and a head coach in 2021. Todd played for and later coached alongside his legendary father, Curt Bladt, who won 422 games and 11 state titles as the Cyclones’ head coach from 1978 to 2019.
“It will probably have to sink in a little bit,” Todd Bladt said of winning Cyclone title number 13. “It was Terry Eagen that started it [with a title in 1972] and my dad got just a couple... I got to play for him, I got to coach under him and now I got one. They’re all special in different ways, and it’s just a unique experience.
“I don’t know what to say other than I’m excited. I’m excited for our guys, I’m excited for our community. The community support in Harlan is fantastic and I’m just excited for what they’ve been able to accomplish this year.”
Curt Bladt, who has battled health problems for the last three years, was in attendance for both of this year’s UNI-Dome playoff games with his wife, Jill, making the occasion even more special for their youngest of three sons.
“That’s a pretty neat deal. This one will always be a little special. Even if it’s the only one, it will be a little special because of that situation,” Todd Bladt said.
First half fireworks
Friday’s opening two quarters featured plenty of big plays and a combined 445 yards of offense as HCHS built a 35-21 advantage.
For the second straight game, Cyclone tight end Jacob Birch had his fingerprints all over the team’s first-half success with seven receptions for 112 yards. He finished with 10 for 145, including three big third-down catches that extended touchdown drives.
Birch was unable to play football last year due to injury.
“It’s just really fun to do because I didn’t obviously get to participate last year, so it was a good feeling knowing that I make a difference,” he said. “It’s just a team effort, everyone making plays, and that’s what allowed us to win.”
After opening the game with a quick three-and-out on defense, the Cyclones started their first drive from the Nighthawk 41 and scored four plays later on Kasperbauer’s 25-yard TD pass to Connor Frame.
B-H/RV standout Landyn Van Kekerix returned the ensuing kickoff to the 40 and the Nighthawks wasted little time tying the score on Tanner Te Slaa’s perfectly-placed 30-yard bomb to Vance Katzfey.
HCHS answered with a nine-play, 67-yard scoring drive, including two Birch receptions for 32 yards and a key pass interference call. On third-and-three from the 5, Hall appeared to be stopped near the line of scrimmage, but spun out of the tackle and was given a helpful toss into the end zone by left tackle Gunner Schmitz.
Two punts later, Hall turned in perhaps the play of the game, intercepting an errant Te Slaa throw and racing 57 yards the other way as time expired in the first quarter. Stephen Leinen’s third extra point made it 21-7 after one.
“Today’s [pick six] was wild,” Hall said. “I think we were in a cover 2 and I stepped back because the guy that was in my zone didn’t run a route for me to guard, so I kind of sat back and just had my eyes peeled. I saw the ball come across the middle and I just picked it off and took it all the way.
“It all happens so fast. I just try and use my speed to get to the end zone, and that’s what happened.”
Coach Bladt doesn’t believe that too many players can claim to have a pick six in back-to-back games inside the UNI-Dome.
“I think that would probably be pretty rare. He’s a big playmaker,” Bladt said. “He can all of a sudden get a hold of that ball and there’s some fireworks that come about, and it was no different tonight.”
The next four series resulted in two touchdowns for each team on drives covering between 64 and 80 yards.
B-H/RV twice cut the margin to seven points, including Te Slaa’s five-yard TD toss to Caleb Kats. Later, a reverse-pass trick play resulted in a 66-yard touchdown for the dangerous Van Kekerix, who sidestepped multiple tackles on his way down the left sideline.
The Cyclones responded quickly both times and scored on William Kenkel’s four-yard run and Joey Moser’s 28-yard touchdown catch from Kasperbauer with 2:28 left.
The Nighthawks were driving again shortly before the half, but an errant snap resulted in a 23-yard loss and ended the threat.
Second half stops
Scoring was harder to come by in the second half as each team found the end zone just once.
Boyden-Hull struck first with a 15-play, 82-yard drive that featured four third-down conversions, including successful screen passes to Bryson Van Grootheest on third-and-15 and third-and-14. Katzfey added a 25-yard catch and Van Kekerix scored from two yards out to make it 35-28 late in the third.
The Cyclones would respond one last time with a big drive, marching 65 yards in 10 plays. Birch made a great 21-yard grab on third-and-three and Kenkel crashed into the end zone on third-and-goal from the 2 for his second touchdown. The HCHS fullback led the team with 47 rushing yards on 18 carries.
With 11:14 remaining, the Cyclones were done scoring and needed three more stops to close the deal on their 13th win and 13th title.
Gunner Schmitz, filling in for injured standout Jameson Bieker at defensive tackle, notched a huge 10-yard sack to thwart one Nighthawk drive. Later, after Kasperbauer was intercepted by Kats on a deep ball, B-H/RV gained 32 yards on a flanker pass but the Cyclone defense held on downs at the 13 when a jump-pass by Van Kekerix was broken up.
HCHS was able to run four and a half minutes off the clock and the Nighthawks started their final possession at their own 20. A 36-yard catch by Katzfey and two pass interference calls put Boyden-Hull in the red zone prior to Neuharth’s clinching INT.
Two plays later, Kasperbauer took a knee in victory formation to make it official.
“It was an incredible football game... back and forth. We kept battling. We just came up short,” said Boyden-Hull/Rock Valley head coach Cory Brandt.
In four previous playoff games vs. HCHS, the Nighthawks had never before scored more than seven points, including last year’s 44-7 semifinal defeat at the dome. Brandt was proud of his team for showing more fight this time and never giving up.
“Last year was tough. We were beat up at the end of the year, just couldn’t battle back, and this team (did),” Brandt said. “Unfortunately we... spotted them 14 right away and had to battle back and get back those points, but to the kids’ credit they did.
“It was fun. We didn’t quit. We didn’t have a last-year effect. The kids kept coming back, but I thought Harlan just played an incredible game. That quarterback is phenomenal and their receivers; wow, did they catch the ball well today. They just kept making plays. We tried to turn them over, we tried to get to the quarterback. You try to do all the different things that you want to do. It just didn’t happen today and that’s just a credit to how good of a team they are. Their playmakers - wow. They threw the ball in a perfect spot and we’d have good coverage but they still make the play.”
All but 73 of Friday’s 712 total yards came through the air as both quarterbacks showed off their big-play ability.
Kasperbauer completed 20-of-27 pass attempts for 273 yards, two scores (giving him 46 on the year) and one interception. Te Slaa was 18-of-36 for 268 yards, two TDs and two picks while Kats completed both of his trick-play throws for 98 yards and also had a team-high eight receptions for 112 yards. Van Grootheest added six catches for 104 and Van Kekerix totaled 221 all-purpose yards to go along with a team-high 8.5 tackles.
“They had good guys up front, big offensive line, some really, really good athletes. They matched up really well with us,” McLaughlin said. “I said coming into this... ‘The best teams in the state are in the 3A state title game this year,’ and that’s how it was and that’s what you guys saw today. It was a lot of fun.”
The Nighthawks lived up to the hype Friday and played a great state championship game. The Cyclones, though, were just a little bit better and made a few more plays.
The HCHS offense performed at an elite level in the first half and the defense saved some of its best moments for the fourth quarter. McLaughlin, Schmitz, Zane Bendorf and Franz Reisz all had a QB sack while Hall and Neuharth had big interceptions.
“The guys really just locked it down,” Bladt said of the defense. “That (fourth down stop at the 13 was) a game changer, and that’s what the defense did all year. They saved us in a few ball games and the offense was able to get some things done in some other games.
“You lean on each other, and that’s what a team is all about. It doesn’t matter if it’s the defense winning the game or the offense winning it. All our kids really care about is the W. No one really cares who gets the credit and great things can happen when you have that going for you.”
Yes, some business was certainly finished on Friday, but the job isn’t over. Eighteen valuable seniors suited up for the final time, but at least 13 players with starting experience will be back in 2022.
The title drought is over... and Iowa’s original football dynasty is poised for a reawakening.
“It feels really good,” Hall said. “Last year we left on a sour note. I was super pissed. This year it feels good to be back and actually win it, and hopefully next year we can come back and win another one.”
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