Grundy Center football stymies Earlham, advances to quarterfinals

Grundy Center celebrates Friday's second-round state football win over Earlham. (Jake Ryder photo)
Jake Ryder

GRUNDY CENTER – Grundy Center football head coach Travis Zajac has been verbose in his praise of the Spartan defense this season.

But Friday's performance against Earlham even left Zajac momentarily speechless.

Grundy Center posted its lowest point total of the season, but the Spartan defense continued to answer the bell, round after round, and then finally landed the knockout blow in a 6-0 victory for the home team at Spartan Stadium in a Class A second-round postseason contest.

"That was a really tough team to play," Zajac said. "They've got three or four kids in the backfield that are dangerous when they touch it and I'm just lost for words for the defensive performance tonight. It was not pretty for us offensively, but none of that really matters. We were able to advance."

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The Spartans (9-1) advance to the state quarterfinals, and get one more home game, a district rematch with North Tama (8-2), with a trip to the UNI-Dome on the line on Nov. 5.

Grundy Center forced two crucial turnovers to clinch the showdown with the Cardinals (6-4). Logan Knaack snagged an interception on a fourth-down throw with 2:33 left; Earlham forced a Knaack fumble to regain possession two plays later, but the Cardinals did the same on their next drive and Dayne Zinkula, making his return to the starting lineup after resting a nagging ankle injury, hopped on the loose ball with 2:02 to play. Zinkula also had several first-down bursts in the run game to keep the Spartans' offense on the field on Friday.

"I was a little nervous at first with their power-run defense," Zinkula said, "which we hadn't seen much of beside St. Ansgar, but our d-line played great, our linebackers flowed very well. [Defensive coaches] Conger, Betts, Dole keep putting us in great positions."

After Zinkula's fumble recovery, the Spartans burned off all but 13 seconds of the clock before punting back to Earlham and the Cardinals could not finagle a miracle.

Grundy Center skated by with a single touchdown dive from Logan Knaack with 2:12 left in the second quarter - the offensive line in front of Logan moving mountains on 2nd-and-2 from the 5-yard line to get Knaack into the end zone.

"We just wanted the fresh set of downs inside the five," Zajac said. "We were trying to sneak it, but credit to our alignment and Logan finding it to get it to the end zone."

The point-after kick was no good, which Zajac noted would be a point of emphasis in practice this week to get kicker Colin Gordon better protection for what could be crucial point-after tries in the game or games to come.

"We had some good drives, then we'd get penalties, miss throws, just continuously shoot ourselves in the foot for most of the game," Zajac said. "In the end, we made enough plays offensively to win the football game because of the great play of our defense."

The Cardinals, a sneaky six-win team that played against some tough teams like Mount Ayr and last year's 1A runner-up Van Meter, recovered an onside kick to start the game and drove down to Grundy's 10-yard line in a methodical opening drive. After 14 plays and a little over eight minutes, Earlham's 27-yard field goal attempt missed right.

The second drive for the Cardinals also got to Grundy territory, but other than that first drive Earlham never got inside Grundy's 40-yard line, even with the Cardinals' methodical run offense often keeping the Spartans' offense off the field in a first half that took only 40 minutes of real time to play.

"In the second half, we were able to get off our blocks a little bit better and tackle the kids," Zajac said. "But even with all that, Earlham still had chances and we slammed the door every time. I'd never question the grit and character of our kids. It's unbelievable."

And now, after making the long road trips in the past couple of seasons to secure their spot in the UNI-Dome just down the road, the Spartans get some home cooking on Friday against the Redhawks. Grundy Center defeated North Tama, 28-0, in the regular-season finale on Oct. 15.

"Oh, it'll be a hostile environment," Zinkula said. "Our fans have been excellent all year, we've got our cheerleaders, and the student section has the speakers bumpin', it's been a lot of fun."


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