CEDAR FALLS - At the end of Saturday's Class 1A Semi-final game with Council Bluffs St. Alberts, the Emmetsburg E-Hawks lined up on the field like they have on 12 other occasions this season. Shaking hands with their opponents, The E-Hawks took a knee near the center of the UNI?Dome turf in Cedar Falls as Todd Tharp of the Iowa High School Athletic Association presented a trophy to the team captains as the E-Hawk faithful cheered their team.
However, there was no victory celebration on Saturday - rather, it was the end of an exciting season in a 24-6 loss to the Falcons of Council Bluffs St. Albert's in the semi final playoff game, ending the E-Hawks' run for the season with a mark of 12-1.
"We have nothing to hang our heads about and had a great season," E-Hawk Head Coach Mike Dunlap said after the game outside a subdued locker room. "This obviously wasn't what we wanted, but today just wasn't our day."
Todd Tharpe, Associate Director of the Iowa High School Athletic Association, presents a semi-finalist trophy to E-Hawk tri-captain Arik Kerr as the rest of the E-Hawks come forward to accept the award. The 24-6 loss in the semi-finals to Council Bluffs St. Albert’s ended Emmetsburg’s bid for a tenth state title and finished the season with a mark of 12-1.
--Dan Voigt photo
Saturday's semi-final pitted the last two remaining undefeated teams in Class 1A for the matchup, and from the opening kickoff, the E-Hawks found themselves facing a major challenge.
A touchback gave the E-Hawks the ball at their 20, and after three plays, the E-Hawks were punting on fourth and nine, an early marker of what might be in store for the rest of the contest.
St. Albert's would take over at the Emmetsburg 44 yard line where the Falcons went to work. A powerful running game would start marching the ball downfield as the E-Hawk defense tried to stop the threat, but with 7:35 to go in the opening quarter, JD Culjat popped through a hole in the defense and scored from five yards out. The conversion kick by John Meyerring was good, putting Emmetsburg down by a 7-0 score.
Another kickoff into the end zone put the E-Hawks back on their own 20 yard line with the touchback to start the second possession.
The E-Hawks showed some life when quarterback Ryan Kliegl put the ball in the air and hit Jake Carlson with a nine-yard throw that gave Emmetsburg a first down, but the drive would stall out and set up a punt by Jake Jackson.
St. Albert's took over at their 28 yard line and began to steadily work their way down the field with short runs to get to the E-Hawk 19 yard line when the first quarter ended.
Emmetsburg's defense was still on the field to start the second quarter, but on fourth and three at the E-Hawk 18 yard line, St. Albert's set up for a 33 yard field goal attempt by John Meyerring that went through the uprights for a 10-0 lead with 11:16 to go in the half.
Now trailing 10-0, Emmetsburg would start at its 20 yard line on another touchback. The E-Hawks would start working their way upfield, but ended up punting again to put St. Albert's at their 22 yard line.
The Falcons started driving again, benefitting from a pass interference call on the E-Hawks that brought the Falcons to their 41 yard line. St. Alberts would keep driving until they faced a fourth and three at the Emmetsburg 23 yard line and turned the ball over on downs after an incomplete pass.
The E-Hawks would get three downs and punted prided itself on a punishing ground attack and suffocating defense.
Those two signature trademarks of the tradition-rich E-Hawk football program ran into an unstoppable force in the form of Council Bluffs St. Albert here Saturday at the UNI-Dome.
Despite a typical valiant effort, No. 1 Emmetsburg (12-1 overall) was denied in its bid for a 10th state crown in school history, dropping a 24-6 Class 1A semifinal decision to the second-ranked Falcons (13-0).
Forced to punt on their first four drives of the game, the E-Hawks fell into a 10-0 hole at the half and failed to dig themselves out the rest of the way. Opportunistic St. Albert jumped in front at the midway point of the first quarter on a five-yard jaunt to paydirt from senior quarterback J.D. Culjat, culminating a nine-play, 44-yard drive. Freshman kicker John Meyerring then extended the Falcon advantage on their next possession with a 34-yard field goal early in the second period.
"We thought we were still alive (down 10-0 at the break)," said Dunlap. "We knew we needed to come out and get a stop, but (the Falcons) got another score (on their opening drive) and that really put us behind the eight ball."
Senior Brady Berkland and junior Andrew Wellik combined for 118 yards rushing on 19 carries for Emmetsburg, which was outgained in total yardage, 354-216. The lone E-Hawk score came on a one-yard endzone plunge by senior Marcus Akridge with 6:39 remaining in the final frame. Wellik provided the highlight on the crisp seven-play, 66-yard march, darting free for a 49-yard scamper. Emmetsburg actually threatened to break through previously before turning the ball over on downs at the St. Albert 11-yardline.
"They're a very good football team and were just better than us (Saturday)," said Dunlap of St. Albert. "I thought the real difference in the game was their ability to control us up front."
Kellen O'Neill, a 187-pound senior, was the offensive catalyst for the unbeaten Falcons, accumulating 101 of their 276 rushing yards on only seven totes. O'Neill set up the last St. Albert points of the afternoon with a crushing 78-yard gallop down the left sideline.
Cole Herr also delivered 96 yards on 16 attempts for the Falcons, who kept their hopes for a fifth ever 1A state title alive and improved to 41-18 all-time in 23 playoff trips.
Culjat went an efficient 9 of 10 through the air for 78 yards as well and ran 13 times for 45 yards, including a pair of touchdowns.
A group of 14 E-Hawk seniors wrapped up their memorable high school careers 47-3 overall on the gridiron - with all three losses coming in the postseason. Emmetsburg is now an incredible 69-27 all-time in a state record 36 playoff appearances.
"Our seniors are a tremendous bunch of high character kids," said Dunlap, who owns a 58-12 mark through six years at the helm. "I'm very proud of all their efforts."