CEDAR RAPIDS — The saga between Pella and Cedar Rapids Xavier will continue Thursday.
The two football powers will write another chapter of their postseason encounters that date back to the Cedar Rapids Regis program, which combined with Cedar Rapids LaSalle to form Xavier in 1998. The rivalry has become more common since Xavier moved down to Class 3A in 2014.
Top-ranked Xavier will play No. 4 Pella for the third time in the last five years in the UNI-Dome, facing off in the 3A state championship Thursday, beginning at 7 p.m. Pella (11-1) has won the last three 3A state titles, beating the Saints in the 2014 and 2016 semifinals.
“It’s just a great accomplishment for any team to get to the Dome, so I’m happy for our kids to be able to get there first of all,” Xavier Coach Duane Schulte said. “It just so happens you’re playing Pella, which is an outstanding program.”
The Saints (12-0) have reached the UNI-Dome for the fifth time in the last six seasons, but the Dutch have ended their season short of the finals the two previous meetings.
Last year, the two played a classic semifinal that Pella snatched away from Xavier on the last play of the game when Ryan Van Wyk pulled down a 20-yard TD pass for a 34-30 victory.
In 2014, Pella shut out an injury-plagued Xavier team, 27-0, in the semifinals. The game was never really competitive.
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The lineup has changed drastically from last season. Xavier only returned a couple starters from a year ago, getting a chance to pen a page in Xavier history.
“You can talk about 2014, but none of these kids were playing in that game, so it doesn’t matter,” Duane Schulte said. “We had a few kids play in last year’s game.
“It’s a blank slate. It’s not like we’re trying to redo something. We’re just trying to accomplish something this year.”
The postseason clashes date back to before all of the current Saints were even born. In 1978, Regis defeated Pella in the quarterfinals en route to the 3A title. The two teams met again in the 1991 state quarterfinals. Regis traveled to Pella for a game in frigid temperatures with snow patches on the field. The Royals received two TD runs from Jim Zachar, including one in overtime after Pella missed a field goal, for a 13-7 victory.
“We haven’t brought up anything,” Duane Schulte said. “Literally, we haven’t said a word about any prior year. The only thing that has been brought up about that has been by coaches in the coaches’ office and how people try to bring that up, but we’re like it’s not the same kids so it doesn’t really matter.”
Both programs resemble one another, fielding tough, disciplined and athletic teams. Each offense favors the run. Pella has rushed for 2,636 yards, averaging 219.7 per game, and 39 touchdowns. Xavier has 2,562 yards on the ground, good for 213.5 a contest, and 35 scores.
“Pella is a really good team,” Xavier running back Braden Stovie said after the Saints’ 35-7 semifinal victory over No. 3 Solon. “They’re physical and big. It’s going to be a good game. It’s going to be close.”
Quinn Schulte is one starter back from last season, but he transitioned from wide receiver to quarterback, replacing older brother, Bryce. The Saints seemed to reload, putting up 35 points a game and limiting opponents to 99 total points through the semifinals.
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“They had been around the system also for a long time so they knew what they were doing,” Quinn Schulte said. “They’ve also been a great help.”
McClain Burger, who leads Xavier with 49 tackles and nine solo for loss, added, “We really had to step it up, knowing that we didn’t start last year. We worked really hard in the offseason and worked really hard in practice. That is what got us better.”
The younger Schulte and Stovie have shouldered the load on offense after an injury to then leading rusher Jax Junge. Stovie has 921 yards and seven TDs on the ground, while Quinn Schulte has 872 yards and 19 scores rushing in addition to his 1,115 yards and 13 TDs passing.
Duane Schulte said most of that relies on the offensive line, consisting of starters Ethan Brown, Wyatt Johnson, Tim Globokar, John Draker and Josh Volk with tight ends Jacob Hines and Jared Brown.
“You can’t run the ball if people aren’t blocking,” Duane Schulte said. “It starts with those guys and when they’re doing a good job it opens things up for Quinn and Braden.”
Xavier will have to find a way to replicate its semifinal effort that Solon Coach Kevin Miller described as “a state championship performance.”
The players aren’t looking at the past, whether it is last week, last year or a couple decades ago. They are focused on the present and what it will take for a victory Thursday night.
“There is definitely history,” Burger said. “We’ve practiced for this our whole lives and the whole season. We just want to play to the best of our ability and read our keys.”
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