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It sounds like the engine’s starting to sputter, but a couple more weeks of high school football, and the season – in the year of the pandemic – will reach the finish line.

It’ll be interesting to see how quickly the vaccine, once it gets approval and distribution starts, has an impact on the sports world. We all can agree: It can’t come soon enough.

With that in mind, though, for the first time in three years I will not be making a trip to the UNI-Dome to cover a local team in my role at the newspaper.

The first of three straight years of drives to Cedar Falls came in 2017, my final year as editor of NEWSpapers of Iowa County, where I pinch-hit for the sports editor in covering Williamsburg and their exciting Iowa Class 2A semifinal contest victory over Union of LaPorte City. The Raiders had the lead and sealed the win in the final seconds with a touchdown that put them up two scores. The sports editor went the following week, when Williamsburg was shut out by state champion Waukon.

Then came my journey to southwest Iowa, where I followed AHSTW in 2018 and Audubon a year ago, as they made their quests to win the state championship. AHSTW downed Edgewood-Colesburg before losing to Hudson in their Class A state championship game two years ago. In 2019, Audubon pulled away from Remsen St. Mary’s before falling in a hard-fought battle to Don Bosco in the title tilt.

This year, the last two teams standing as of the quarterfinals – Audubon and CAM – were eliminated in hard-fought contests. The Wheelers and Cougars should be proud, but given a break or two, they may still have been practicing.

But going back through the records, it appears that every year in the “UNI-Dome semifinal” era – that is, since 1998, the year semifinal contests began to be played in Cedar Falls, not just the championships – at least one area team has qualified for the playoffs.

In 1998, there were several more schools operating, schools that have since consolidated. Exira and Elk Horn-Kimballton were separate, as were Adair-Casey and Guthrie Center. Walnut was its separate entity, at least 15 years before being absorbed by the Avoca-based AHST, adding the “W” at the end of Avoca-Hancock-Shelby-Tennant. Of those separate schools, only Exira had not qualified between 1998 and its final season, 2009.

Area teams made the trip to the UNI-Dome in 2002, 2006, 2009, 2012, 2013, 2018 and 2019. I already mentioned AHSTW and Audubon, but it was Atlantic that won it all in 2002. The former Adair-Casey – they merged with Guthrie Center to become ACGC in 2016 – was also a state champion, their eight-player titles coming in 2000 and 2001, but that was before eight-player played at the UNI-Dome.

Some other things about Friday’s quarterfinal contests:

  • CAM and Audubon were among five undefeated teams that suffered their first (and only) loss last Friday night. The others were Iowa City West (Class 4A), Southeast Valley (Class 1A) and Webster City (Class 3A). Webster City lost to Boyden-Hull/Rock Valley, one of the two two-loss teams still playing; Council Bluffs St. Albert is the other.
  • My alma mater, North Scott, is among three teams that made the semifinals for the first time. Ironically, the Lancers were 4 yards away from defeat by West Delaware of Manchester in the final 50 seconds of their Iowa Class 3A quarterfinal, but then just as it appeared the Hawks’ quarterback had a clear shot to the end zone, he was stripped of the ball from behind and the Lancers fell on the loose ball in the end zone for a touchback. What a finish!

The Lancers had reached the quarterfinals four times in the past – 2014, 2017, 2018 and 2019, losing to Pleasant Valley, Bettendorf and Western Dubuque of Epworth (twice) – before finally breaking through.

Closer to home, South Central Calhoun of Lake City had also had multiple quarterfinal heartbreakers, losing five times before the sixth time proved to be the charm. They beat Southeast Valley of Gowrie in a Class 1A quarterfinal to advance.

Back to eastern Iowa, Class 2A Camanche is making its first semifinal appearance after beating West Liberty.

  • Two Hawkeye Ten Conference teams are still alive. In Class 3A, where one H-10 team was guaranteed to advance, Harlan out-dueled Council Bluffs Lewis Central to make their 28th trip to the semifinals, the first since 2017. Council Bluffs St. Albert got revenge over Logan-Magnolia in Class A and is back at the Dome; like Harlan, the Falcons are there for the first time since 2017.

The Corner Conference (Fremont-Mills, in eight-man) and West Central Activities Conference (Van Meter, in Class 1A) are also represented at the Dome. Eight-man team CAM was the final team left from the Rolling Valley Conference; Logan-Magnolia and Underwood were the final two from the Western Iowa Conference, in Class A and 1A, respectively.

Of metro conferences, divided between Classes 3A and 4A, six teams representing three conferences are left. The Central Iowa Metropolitan League has Ankeny, Southeast Polk and West Des Moines Dowling, all in Class 4A. The Mississippi Valley Conference has just Cedar Rapids Xavier, in Class 3A, and its the Saints who’ll face one of the Mississippi Athletic Conference’s two remaining teams ... who else but North Scott. The other MAC team, Pleasant Valley, rounds out the Class 4A field. When Grinnell was beaten by Xavier in their Class 3A quarterfinal contest, that eliminated the Little Hawkeye Conference.

  • As is the case for most years in the playoffs, the deeper you go into the playoffs, the more close games you’ll see. According to the Des Moines Register’s Cody Goodwin, the average margin of victory was 16.05 points for games from eight-man to Class 3A, the only really one-sided game being OA-BCIG’s 60-point slaughtering of West Sioux. Class 4A’s two games were decided by an average of 27.7 points. Seven games were decided by one touchdown.
  • Anyone who thought that, had Atlantic won against West Marshall, Atlantic – both teams were the Trojans – would be in for a blowout loss to PCM might want to think twice, at least if you take comparative scoring into consideration. The Mustangs, which had thrashed just about everyone until the semifinals, needed to rally from a 12-0 halftime deficit to beat West Marshall 21-20.

It’s hard to say, of course, if PCM was looking ahead or if there might be chinks in the armor or what be the case, but certainly I think had they gotten past West Marshall and played last Friday, Atlantic would have had a chance at pulling off the win and snaring their first UNI-Dome trip since 2002.

Would have been great to cheer both Atlantic and North Scott on in Cedar Falls.

As it was, though, West Marshall was definitely a worthy opponent for PCM and all the compliments in the world to them for giving the Mustangs a hard-fought battle.

Now it’s off to the semifinals. No matter when they’re held ... this week or sometime later on ... good luck to all teams!

To reach Brian Rathjen, send correspondence to sports@ant-news.com or phone (712) 243-2624.

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