Class A Championship: Grundy Center Falls Short Again
Grundy Center knows what it feels like to lose a state championship game. The emotions are excruciating, especially if the battle for the ultimate prize goes down to the wire as it did Thursday afternoon at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls.
Each of the past two seasons, the Spartans have walked off Stan Sheriff Field heart-broken after difficult setbacks. This year, the defeat was even more gut-wrenching than the previous two.
West Hancock of Britt captured this year's Class A state title with a 19-14 victory over Grundy Center. The Eagles held off a late rally by the Spartans to capture their second championship in three years. While five points separated the two teams on the scoreboard, the difference on the field was the game's closing seconds.
Grundy Center begin its final drive at its own 20-yard-line with two minutes, 38 seconds left to play. Led by senior quarterback Logan Knaack, the Spartans gained 56 yards in 12 plays. Grundy Center used its final time in the process.
With nine seconds remaining, the Spartans were facing a 3rd-and-7 at West Hancock's 24-yard-line. On the next play, Knaack looked to throw a pass to one of his teammates in the end zone but couldn't find an open receiver. So, he scrambled 15 yards up the middle and picked up a first down.
With two seconds left, the Spartans hurried and spiked the ball while the chains were moving. The referees, however, waved off the play, ruling that time had expired.
"My heart breaks for our kids and their families," Head Coach Travis Zajak. "They left it all on the line and had a chance to win at the end, until that chance was taken away from them."
For the Spartans and their loyal supporters, there will always be the lingering...what if?...questions.
What if...they could've had one final pass to the end zone? Would they have scored?
What if...when trailing 19-7 late in the third quarter, Grundy Center kicked a field goal (assuming it was good) instead of turning the ball over on downs at the Eagles' 9-yard-line. In fairness, the decision to go for a first down was the right one at the time.
What if...after narrowing the deficit to 19-14 midway through the fourth quarter, Grundy Center had been able to put some points on the scoreboard, instead of gaining two yards on four plays. That sequence of plays was a testament to West Hancock's solid defense, which, statistically, was on par with the Spartans.
Those questions will never be answered. Even if one of the above situations went Grundy Center's way, it's possible West Hancock would have won anyway.
"It sucks coming up short three years in a row," Knaack said afterward. "It's not a good feeling. We went down swinging."
Knaack led the Spartans on an impressive 13-play, 70-yard drive to start the game. His one-yard run put with with 4:41 left in the first quarter gave Grundy Center an early 7-0 advantage.
West Hancock equaled the score on its opening possession, driving 66 yards on seven plays in just under three minutes.
The Eagles took the lead for good after intercepting a Knaack pass that went through the hands of a receiver early in the second quarter. They scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive, but missed the extra-point kick.
West Hancock's final score came on the opening drive of the second half, a nine-play, 68-yard march to the end zone that took nearly four minutes to complete. The Eagles failed on the two-point conversion runs, but had a 19-7 edge. The six points were the only points allowed by Grundy Center in the third quarter all season.
The Spartans' ensuing drive was the one that stalled at the West Hancock 9-yard-line.
Grundy Center started to recapture is opening-possession swagger in the fourth quarter. The Spartans put together a six-play, 49-yard drive that ended with a nine-yard run to the end zone by Dayne Zinkula and Colin Gordon extra-point kick.
Trailing 19-14, Grundy Center next forced a West Hancock turnover. Clay Saak forced forced a fumble, which Dexter Whitehill recovered at the Eagles' 25-yard-line. The Spartans, though, moved the ball just two yards on four plays and failed to get any points on the drive.
Grundy Center's second missed opportunity of the second half set the stage for the stunning end.
Knaack threw for 184 yards on 15-of-25 passing with one interception. He also ran for 77 yards and one touchdown on 18 carries. Zinkula finished with 69 rushing yards on 20 carries.
It was the final high school game for Knaack, Zinkula and eight other Grundy Center seniors. Starting in 2019, they've either helped or led the Spartans on one of the greatest -- or possibly best -- three-year runs of success in school history, posting a 33-5 combined record that included back-to-back-to-back second-place finishes.
Playing for the title three years in a row is "nothing short of remarkable," Zajak said after the game, while admitting it was hard to reflect on those accomplishments so close after another devastating loss to end the season. "It reflects not only on their playing ability, but the type of kids they are."
When asked about the legacy of his 10 seniors, Zajac said: "They are fantastic young men with incredibly bright futures ahead of them. I'm really proud that they are going to be great husbands and fathers some day. They've risen our program to incredibly high standards, along with the seniors from last year and the year before that. I'm really going to miss these 10 kids, spending every day with them in the fall. They're in a class of their own."