INDEPENDENCE - For Independence, the prep football season opener bore little resemblance to its winless 2016 campaign.
Even in defeat, a clear message was sent that there are brighter days ahead for the Mustangs.
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DUBUQUE — Dubuque Wahlert’s defense wants to hit you in the mouth over and over.
If that doesn’t work, having the Golden Eagles take the ball from you time after time will start to wear you down.
Consider Friday night to be Example A.
Wahlert forced four first-half turnovers — six total — and Noah Sigwarth scored the go-ahead touchdown on a quarterback keeper midway through the fourth quarter as the Eagles stymied Marion, 17-14, on homecoming at the Rock Bowl.
“We’re a little disappointed we didn’t put more points on the board, but we just went with it,” Sigwarth said. “We came out a little flat in the third quarter, but we got it done when it counted, so I guess that’s what matters.”
Joe Friend kicked a 42-yard field goal late in the first quarter and Kolton Bartow scored on a 3-yard plunge early in the second quarter as the Eagles evened their record at 2-2 overall, 1-1 in Class 3A District 4.
Bartow finished with 76 yards rushing on 17 carries. Starting running back Kelan Dickson, who added two interceptions on defense, added 89 yards on 22 carries.
“It’s a big win for our kids, especially our seniors,” Wahlert Coach Travis Zajac said. “It’s their last homecoming game, so obviously that motivated them a little bit more than might be normal. But, our first half the defense performed outstanding. We turned them over four times and, unbelievably, we’re only able to get 10 points out of that.”
Wahlert forced a three-and-out on its opening defensive possession, but the offense stalled out and turned the ball over on downs inside the Marion 13.
Eagles defensive lineman Blake Bradley tipped a pass at the line of scrimmage and dove for the interception, setting Wahlert up with a first-and-goal at the Indians’ 6. However, Wahlert’s drive again stalled out and the Eagles turned it over on downs at the 1.
“I was talking to the kids after the game and I went for it on fourth down on that end when we could have kicked a couple field goals, and I’m trying to tell them that I’m confident in them,” Zajac said. “I want them to reflect that confidence themselves. When they get it rolling they’re a confident group, but we have a tendency to make some mistakes and that kind of backtracks the momentum and the confidence level drops. But (defensive coordinator Lucas) Stanton and those defensive coaches did an outstanding job this week getting those kids prepared.”
Sure enough, just a handful of plays later, Marik Dickson burst through the Marion line for a strip-sack of Marion quarterback Isaak Hahn. Matt Bandy recovered at the Marion 25, but the Eagles were unable to move the ball and settled for Friend’s 42-yard field goal with 21 seconds left in the quarter.
Marion’s ensuing drive ended with its third turnover of the game — a Zach Kemp interception — and led to Kolton Bartow’s 3-yard touchdown run, putting Wahlert in front, 10-0, with 8:16 left in the first half.
The Indians were driving late in the second quarter, but Kelan Dickson came away with an interception on a jump ball on fourth down to hand possession back to Wahlert.
“We really shot ourselves in the foot to begin with,” Marion Coach Tim Lovell said. “Four turnovers in the first half really puts you in a hole. I thought our defense played really well, but you have to give Wahlert credit for playing an entire football game.”
Kelan Dickson picked off Trevor Paulsen, who had relieved Hahn, early in the third quarter.
Paulsen completed 8 of 12 passes for 100 yards and an interception.
Marion (2-2, 1-1) finally got into the action midway through the third quarter when Chris Mohwinkle broke free for a 40-yard touchdown run. Alex Wahlen’s extra point cut the deficit to 10-7 with 5:08 left in the third.
Owen Carstensen sprinted for a 31-yard touchdown and Marion’s first lead with 2 minutes left in the third, one snap after a defensive holding penalty on an incomplete third-down pass gave the Indians new life.
But, Wahlert defense stiffened and the offense came back to life.
Sigwarth converted on fourth-and-1 at the Marion 10, then rolled out and bullied his way in from the 7 on the next snap to put Wahlert back in front, 17-14, with 6:58 left.
“I kind of wanted the ball in my hands and my team and my coaches trusted me to make the plays,” Sigwarth said. “The guys up front blocked exceptionally well. We were able to get two clean looks and I just executed. That’s really all it came down for me to do. These guys really put me in a position to make a play.”
Marik Dickson recovered a fumble on Marion’s next possession, but Kelan Dickson lost a fumble as the Eagles drove for an insurance touchdown. Grant Meth recovered for the Indians.
Marion drove to the Wahlert 35, but Carstensen was met in the backfield by the Wahlert defensive line on fourth-and-1, and the Golden Eagles ran out the clock.