116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR FALLS — West Hancock went back to basics.
East Buchanan fell back on its heels.
Top-ranked West Hancock scored touchdowns on all three second-half possessions, returned an interception for points and kept the No. 7 Buccaneers out of the end zone for a 37-0 Class A state football semifinal victory Thursday at the UNI-Dome.
West Hancock (12-0) broke open an 8-0 halftime advantage with three TDs from senior fullback Matthew Francis, who finished with 129 of the Eagles’ 248 rushing yards.
“We got back to our base stuff,” West Hancock Coach Mark Sanger said about the second half. “We rode our workhorse. Matthew had a great game.”
» Photo gallery: West Hancock vs. East Buchanan in state football semifinals
The second half wasn’t perfect but it quickly shifted to dominant. The Eagles received the kick to open the third and drove 68 yards on 10 plays in 4:08. Francis capped the series with a 10-yard TD run set up by a Zane Kuehl 21-yard jaunt. Francis added a conversion run for a 16-0 lead with 7:47 left in the third.
All 10 plays were rushes and the Eagles only needed to convert one third down.
“We felt good at halftime,” East Buchanan Coach Jerry Alden said. “We’ve been down a couple games at halftime and we felt we were a second-half team.
“The first drive stung us a little bit and we could never recover. They got that other touchdown early and we were just playing catch up. For us, as a running football team, and we’re a good running team, you saw the top two running attacks in Class A football on the field, they were just better than us today. Hats off to them.”
The possession took some wind out of the Buccaneers’ sails, but lifted the Eagles.
“Once we got that first drive in, that boosted our confidence a lot,” Francis said. “We knew if we kept grinding like that we’d keep putting them in.
“We just kept rolling, made them make mistakes and just kept scoring. That’s how we roll.”
West Hancock added scoring drives of 95 yards on seven plays and 88 yards on 12 plays. Francis scored on TD runs of 30 and 5 yards.
“Both teams like to run the ball a lot,” East Buchanan senior Keaton Kelly said. “In the second half, they found something that clicked. We couldn’t stop it. They kind of kicked our butt in the second half.”
East Buchanan had a shot to answer and make a dent in the Eagles’ lead. After going down 24-0, Kelly hit Hunter Bowers for a 64-yard pass play to the West Hancock 3. Tanner Thurn followed with a run to the 1, but two penalties that sandwiched a 1-yard loss transformed a golden opportunity to a turnover on downs with two straight incompletions.
Bowers had a game-high 134 receiving yards on five catches. Three receptions were for 21 yards or more. He went up to snag a couple long gains. Kelly finished with 150 passing yards.
“We knew we were going to have to throw the ball,” Bowers said. “Our line gave us good time to throw so we made it count.
“We’ve been working a long time on stuff like that. (Kelly) is pretty good at what he does. It’s not that hard to make the catch when he has it where it needs to be all of the time.”
The Buccaneers reached the semifinals for the first time in 25 seasons. They finished 10-2 and surpassed predictions from the beginning of the season.
“This is a great football team,” Alden said. “Just proud as hell of them.
“This senior class (and) whole team is something special for us as coaches. I told them it’s not the Friday night wins that we will remember. It is the practices because these guys were always upbeat and competitive.”
For Kelly and senior Adam Hackett, this has been a long road to get to the semifinals. Both suffered injuries and missed last season. They toiled to return for this fall, leading the Buccaneers to their best season in decades.
“Last season was kind of a punch in the gut,” Hackett said. “We had big things planned and they didn’t work out.
“Then coming back this season with everyone working as hard as they did in the offseason, it felt pretty good to get all those wins.”
Kelly added, “It’s unreal. We wanted to come back. At first, we didn’t think we would. We just wanted to make the playoffs. Then, we wanted to make a run. We loved it. We love this team.”
Hackett closed his career as the school’s record holder for rushing yards in a season. He had just 26 against the Eagles, but finished with more than 1,700 yards and 20 TDs this year.
“The only reason I had personal success was because of the blockers and team I had with me,” Hackett said. “I wouldn’t be anything without those guys. They’re the best. They’ve worked just as hard as I have. We just clicked and got the work done.”
The Buccaneers limited West Hancock early, including two three-and-outs in the first. The Eagles capitalized on a short field. Mitchell Smith hit a wide-open Rylan Barnes on a play-action pass against the aggressive Buccaneers defense for a 36-yard TD with six seconds left in the first quarter.
“It was a defensive battle to start,” Sanger said. “We were fortunate enough to get loose on a pass play. They were playing aggressive up front. We slipped our tight end out there and our quarterback made a great play under pressure, put the ball on the money and to get up 8-0 is huge.”
West Hancock (12-0) advances to the title game next Thursday here at 1 p.m. against No. 2 Grundy Center (11-1). The Spartans beat No. 6 Woodbury Central 28-7.