Breaking down Thursday's Class A championship

Jake Ryder and Curran McLaughlin
Mid-America Publishing

For a third consecutive season, the Grundy Center Spartans and West Hancock Eagles will meet in the football postseason. 

For the second time in these three meetings, it will be with the Class A championship on the line. 

The Eagles quest for their second championship in three years. 

The Spartans seek to make their third-straight finals appearance the charm. 

And an old rivalry between Grundy Center and the Britt Eagles has been renewed through two classics in the last two years.

2019 saw the final season of West Hancock coach Bob Sanger end with his third championship as the Spartans proved to be the only team to challenge the Eagles in a 21-17 game. 

In 2020, Grundy Center took their revenge to keep the Eagles out of a UNI-Dome appearance, beating them 20-14 on West Hancock’s field. 

Armed with stellar defenses and plenty of motivation, the tiebreaker in this three-part series could stack up to be one for the ages. 

To commemorate the Class A Championship game on Thursday, The Grundy Register’s Jake Ryder and The Leader’s Curran McLaughlin weigh in on the respective teams they cover and help readers prepare for the matchup.


Keep reading this story thanks to this local supporter of Grundy Center Football!


Describe West Hancock/Grundy Center in one word.


Jake Ryder: Hungry. No matter what happens on Thursday, this run of Grundy Center football will be fondly remembered 20 years from now in a similar fashion to the Spartans of the 1980s that won three state titles. But what separates the Spartans of yore and this generation, at least on paper, is the position on the podium.

And it stretches beyond football - in the short time I’ve covered this school, this community has celebrated many wonderful days and nights, but the Spartans have also had a recent string of moments left on the doorstep of championship immortality. In addition to the two state runner-up football trophies, the Spartans have earned silver medals at state track, been the runner-up boys golf team two springs in a row -- the Spartans’ 2018 boys golf state title is their most recent taste of gold -- and even had back-to-back runner-up finishes for girls basketball.

This senior group has been part of something many small-school communities would relish being a part of. But the time for "just happy to be here" was already gone when Grundy Center lined up against the Class-A-for-a-day Iowa City Regina in 2020, if not sooner - the S.H.I.E.L.D.-bearers are ready to fight once more for that elusive state title. The “Maroon Monsoon” has continued to back their Spartans through all of these narrow misses to history, and I think the Spartan elevens would love to reward the Grundy Center community for its loyalty on Thursday.

Curran McLaughlin: Disciplined. This West Hancock squad takes maybe one or two penalties per game on a bad day, it feels like. On both sides of the ball, they’re willing to be patient and wait for opportunities. But, once they find those moments, it’s usually at the most critical juncture. And just like that, a game that could have finished in a four-point difference is suddenly a four-score victory for the red and white.  



What have been the major storylines about each team this season?


JR: The Spartans came into this season with expectations still fairly high, though there was uncertainty about the line of scrimmage with the bulk of Grundy Center’s 2020 class contributing on the offensive and defensive lines. There is definitely a perception within Grundy Center football circles that this team was projected to underperform - I don’t know if that’s true, but it certainly provided the necessary motivation throughout the season.

The team has showcased strong depth for a Class A school when the Spartans needed to rest starters with injuries during the regular season, a good harbinger for the future of the Grundy Center program and a testament to the process that third-year head coach Travis Zajac has instilled on campus.

This year’s team, in comparison to those before it, feels like more of a defense-first squad. Barring a video-game-like performance in the run game on Thursday, this will be Grundy’s lowest-performing team in terms of total offense of the three Dome teams. But Grundy Center’s offensive success has often been predicated on the Spartans’ defensive effort giving the offense a short field, and the defense has been incredibly resilient at key times in their run back to the state title game.

CM: I’d like to think of this season as ‘some old, some new.’ An evolution along with traditional West Hancock football. The most notable thing about this team is the changes to the offense. The Eagles are not exclusive to the old-school power running that it’s built their reputation on.

Surprisingly, West Hancock debuted a wildcat/shotgun formation this year that’s given defenses fits. To be frank, it’s really just a new coat of paint to the tried-and-true power run scheme. But, it lets the offense spread out more stout defense and attack different angles with the inclusion of a QB-designed runs.

The old would be the absolutely dominating defense. This is potentially the greatest defense that West Hancock has put on the field. They met an array of offensive schemes this year and have kept them all in check. The team has pitched five shutouts and hasn’t allowed more than a touchdown in any game this season. I can count at least three additional games that would have been shutouts if they had kept the starters in. Only three teams have been able to score on this squad before the fourth quarter. Impressive is an understatement. The scariest part is they play their best when their backs are against the wall. The Eagles have had offenses drive on them effectively and threaten to score only to come up with zero points multiple times this season.



What were the key victories for each team this season?


JR: One of Grundy Center’s wins that aged gracefully was a Week 3 victory against Wapsie Valley, a team that ended up bowing out to East Buchanan in the quarterfinals. Beyond that, the Spartans’ end-of-season run featured some impressive foes - knocking out North Tama for the district title in the final week of the season, slowing down Saint Ansgar’s run game in the opening round, finding a way to hang on against a deceptively-tough Earlham team that also loved to run the ball, and then brushing back North Tama a second time to get to the Dome. The Spartans have been strong against the run as of late, mostly because of how battle-tested they’ve been against some run-happy offenses and/or offenses with deep playbooks.

CM: To try and keep it brief, both victories over Hartley-Manson-Sanborn is easily the most impressive wins this season. HMS is the highest scoring team in the class, to hold them to only six points over eight quarters is incredible. Matchups can often be trap games, but they improved on their first victory in a big way with a shutout in the quarterfinals. Beating then No. 3 North Butler for the district tile in a blowout is also a marquee win. An overlooked victory for the season is the Garner-Hayfield-Ventura win to open the season. GHV had a tough season, but they’re still two classes higher and have owned the rivalry in the past decade of play. WH’s win is just the second in the last nine meetings, the other being 2019. The Hancock County rival is a litmus test and it says something when the Eagles come out with the win.



What were the takeaways from each team's semifinal matchup?

JR: Grundy’s win over Woodbury Central underscored the role the team’s defense has played this season. Brayden Sawyer’s interception set up Grundy Center’s first touchdown of the game and Dayne Zinkula’s interception return for a touchdown before halftime swung the momentum to the Spartans in the second half. The Spartan offense wasn’t playing terribly in the first half, but just missing that one piece, whether it was making connections in the passing game or avoiding the bad penalty, and all that seemed to fall into place a little easier with a 14-point lead. Grundy Center moved the ball well in the second half and made the Wildcats earn each and every one of their seven points in the second half.

CM: Beating East Buchanan just proves that the Eagles can handle themselves in a dog fight. I mentioned above that close games suddenly become blowouts in a hurry with this team.

Well, East Buchanan was only down six at halftime. East Buchanan showed up in the Semifinals. I’ve seen this story a few times this season, a lot of the West Hancock victories are closer than score indicates. But, those Eagles know how to maximize their chances.

That East Buchanan win also reaffirmed that this team could be a pass-first squad if they wanted to. They had more passing yards than rushing after one half of play, which I didn’t even know was possible. The passing plays this season have felt more like an actual part of the game plan than some play-action gimmick to try and get an easy 80-yard score over the defense. The passing from either Logan Leerar and Mitchell Smith has been solid this year. They can hit their targets and those targets know how to get open. At the end of the day, passing is still a means to keep the defense honest for West Hancock, but if the run game isn’t there or time is short? The Eagles can get it done through the air.

Who are the key players to watch out for on each team?


JR: Logan Knaack has been Grundy Center’s star since his debut on the big stage as a sophomore against West Hancock in the Dome in 2019. Now in his senior season, he’s been making the rounds on college visits to nearby schools like Iowa, South Dakota and South Dakota State in recent months. The Spartans are more balanced this season and his stat sheet reflects this with a career-high 1,524 passing yards, and he remains a dangerous threat on both sides of the ball with seven of Grundy Center’s 19 interceptions this season.

Dayne Zinkula has spent most of his football career on the sidelines battling injury, and this year was his chance to truly shine in a two-way role. Even within his senior season he has grown into the solid No. 2 choice, and someone Knaack can rely on when he puts the football in Zinkula’s breadbasket. He’s also the Spartans’ top defender at 12 total tackles for loss, three interceptions and two recovered fumbles.

While Knaack and Zinkula provide the highlight reels for the Spartans, in many ways 2020 all-state lineman Brayden Sawyer is the heart of this Spartans team. Whether at center on the offensive line or in the linebacker group on defense, Sawyer is one of the last remaining vestiges of the mighty offensive line that bruised opposing defenses last season, and has been a natural senior leader on this team. Sawyer’s made seven tackles for loss with 58 ½ total tackles this season.

CM: The Offensive Line: The unsung heroes. I never give them enough credit when writing. I’m not going to list them all out, but the offense lives and dies by their line. It’s funny because the biggest question mark this season was filling in the holes left by some senior lineman and they’ve done it beautifully. What any of them lack in size they make up in effort.

Mathew Francis (FB/LB): The workhorse of the offense. Francis is a special kind of individual. I think if you asked him to run through a wall, he’d actually break right through the sucker. And, that’s not just because of his physical attributes. He’s one of the most mentally tough players I’ve seen in my short time covering high school sports. He won’t quit until he’s worn down the defense or stopped a ball carrier in his tracks.

Mitchell Smith (QB/LB): The sophomore didn’t start finding a role on offense until a few weeks into the season, but as the wildcat quarterback, he’s helped to transform the offense into this Jekyll-and-Hyde system that’s carried them into the championship game. With Smith as the secondary QB, the Eagles can throw new looks at defenses and even run new concepts such as the option. His ability as a ball carrier makes it easier to move the ball outside the hashes as well.

Defensively, there’s a cast of big playmakers. David Smith on the line has five sacks and 13.5 tackles for a loss. Linebackers Rylan Barnes and Kane Zuehl are both solo tackle machines. Braden Walk, Logan Leerar and Rhett Eisenman have played very well in pass coverage this year.



What do you feel will be the critical factor in this matchup?


JR: I think the turnover battle will loom large once again for Grundy Center’s chances on Thursday. So many of their key victories this season have hinged largely on game-changing fumble recoveries or interceptions. The Eagles have only turned the ball over five times this season; West Hancock’s ability to protect the football will probably go a long way to determining Thursday’s victor.

Beyond that, it may come down to how Grundy’s defense performs against West Hancock’s run game. The 2020 matchup in Britt was notable in that the Spartans held the Eagles to a surprisingly-low 200 yards of total offense and didn’t give up a rushing touchdown, a rare feat. I would be surprised to see the Spartans duplicate that in the climate-controlled Dome, far away from the frozen tundra of Britt. But anything is possible on this stage.

CM: This one is going to be a slugfest. I was surprised when looking up the stats to see Grundy Center is equally as great on defense with their 4.3 points allowed per game. It feels too vague to say it’s going to be about which team makes less mistakes, so I’m going to go with a football fundamental. It’s all about the field position. It’s not a matter of which defense is going to make a stop, because both sides will make stops on Thursday. But, who is going to force a turnover in enemy territory? Or get a favorable punt return? And who’s going to take advantage of that short field first?

Logan Knaack is obviously the guy to watch in this game. He might as well be named Weapon X, being tied for first in touchdowns for Class A. West Hancock has defended against passing opponents this year, but this is a different beast. The Eagles clearly are familiar with Knaack’s dual-threat ability. But, thinking about how to respect the pass and respect Knaack and Dayne Zinkula in the run game is causing a mild headache to form. Knaack’s performance might be the deciding factor in who’s bring home the trophy.

If anyone can put a dent in the Eagle’s armor it’s Knaack and the Spartans. If anyone can limit Knaack, it’s this defense.


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