WAUKON — Ethan O’Neill smiled from ear to ear.
He seemed happy to return to a familiar place to wrap up his season and prep football career.
“It is special,” O’Neill said after fourth-ranked Waukon dropped No. 6 Solon, 24-8, in a Class 2A state quarterfinal Friday night at Richard Hermeier Sports Complex. “Creed Welch and I were freshmen on the varsity team when they won it in 2017, so to be going to the (UNI) Dome four straight years is a dream come true.”
O’Neill scored a pair of touchdowns and Welch passed for another, helping the Indians win their eighth straight game in a battle of 2019 state runners-up. Waukon was second in 2A last year, while Solon was a 3A finalist.
The victory is an example of Waukon’s evolution of a program. Waukon Coach Chad Beerman said this would have been unimaginable a decade ago as Solon was closing a state championship run and the Indians were still a couple years away from their first UNI-Dome trip.
“It’s quite an accomplishment,” Beerman said. “We were talking that 10 to 15 years ago when Solon was in the middle of their titles, if someone had said Waukon would be hosting Solon in a state quarterfinal game people would have laughed.
“Where we’re at right now, I’m really proud of the kids.”
The Indians (8-1) used a stifling defense and just enough offense, led by O’Neill, to snap Solon’s own seven-game win streak.
After the teams traded interceptions, Waukon started its second possession inside its 10 with a holding call backing them to the 5. Four plays later they were on the scoreboard.
Welch helped set up the opening TD was a crazy scramble to avoid a sack near the goal line and flung the ball to midfield where Avery Rocksvold hauled it in for a 54-yard gain. Two plays later, O’Neill scored on a 38-yard TD run off the right end, breaking loose with a strong stiff arm.
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“I like to lower the shoulder a little bit,” O’Neill said. “I like to get up the sideline to get yardage.”
O’Neill demonstrated his workmanlike ability. He carried the ball 23 times for a game-high 85 rushing yards. The 6-foot-2, 205-pounder has a physical style. It helped him bull in for a 4-yard TD and the following conversion run to ice it with 3:47 to play in the fourth.
“He’s very strong and he’s got pretty good speed,” Beerman said of O’Neill’s versatility. “The last two weeks have been the hardest he’s run all year. When he wants to go he’s a load.”
Welch gave Waukon a 14-0 lead in the second, hitting Sean Cooper on a 6-yard TD pass. Pat Hennessy added the conversion run. Special teams contributed to the 16-0 halftime lead. Waukon blocked a punt that bounced out of the back of the end zone for a safety with 2:56 before the break.
O’Neill is also part of a linebacker corps with Lincoln Snitker and Hennessy on a defense that limited Solon all game.
“They’re all over the place,” Solon Coach Lucas Stanton said of the Waukon linebackers. “Their defensive line did a good job we couldn’t get to them.”
The Spartans were held to just 115 yards of total offense. The Indians kept Solon’s offense out of the end zone, even when protecting a short field due to the conditions on Solon’s first four possessions of the second half.
“I told the kids that’s as good of a defensive performance as I’ve been a part of,” Beerman said. “The whole third quarter was played inside our 40 with the wind.”
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Solon (7-3) got on the board in the fourth. Gage Marty picked up a fumble and rumbled 26 yards, pulling the Spartans within 16-8 with 9:50 to go. They couldn’t get any closer.
“Our defensive staff and kids on the defensive side just played their tails off, especially after halftime,” Stanton said. “They gave us chances.”
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