Spartans intercept Wildcats, return to state title game

Grundy Center football advanced to next Thursday's Class A championship game against West Hancock. (Jake Ryder photo)
Jake Ryder

CEDAR FALLS – Grundy Center football's offense was lacking something in the first half of Thursday's game.

"We were missing opportunities where we'd get something going and then we'd have a negative play or a penalty," Grundy Center head coach Travis Zajac said.

As has so often been the case in the Spartans' tough matchups this season, the defense was the missing piece of the offensive puzzle.

Dayne Zinkula returned an interception 88 yards for a touchdown before halftime and Grundy Center's offense clicked into place in the second half for a 28-7 victory over Woodbury Central in a Class A state semifinal at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls.

The Spartans will play in the Class A state championship for the third consecutive season, taking on West Hancock in a rematch of the 2019 title game at 1 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 18.

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"[Playing West Hancock] definitely adds a lot," Grundy Center's Brayden Sawyer said. "We're excited to get after it, we'll prepare for them this upcoming week and we'll be ready."

Sawyer had an interception in the first quarter that set up the Spartans with a short field for a Logan Knaack score with 11:56 left in the second quarter for the first points of the game.

The score was still 7-0 nearing halftime and the Wildcats were putting together a sustained drive, including a 40-yard pass that set Woodbury Central up deep in Grundy Center territory.

On 3rd-and-8 from the Grundy 17-yard line, Wildcats quarterback Dallas Kluender tried to send a pass up the middle, but Zinkula was right in the line of fire and snatched the pass attempt. He avoided the grasp of Woodbury lineman Caleb Morgan, and then galloped downfield.

Carter Bleil, one of the receivers in range of Kluender's pass, had nearly chased Zinkula down before Bryce Greiner leapt on him to give Zinkula some breathing room as he bounded into the end zone.

"That kid probably would've tackled me if they didn't put a good block on him," Zinkula said. "Then I just had to outrun everybody."

The Spartans were able to hold the Wildcats again on the next Woodbury drive and went into halftime with a 14-0 lead.

"Our offense was pretty stagnant, we weren't moving the ball well, but that instilled a lot of confidence," Knaack said. "We could go back out there knowing what we just did on defense and we also could relax a bit more on offense."

Woodbury Central couldn't get a first down in their first drive of the second half, and the Spartans' first drive of the second half went 65 yards in six plays, capped off by a 19-yard pass from Knaack to Colin Gordon with 8:58 left in the third.

Another Grundy defensive stop led to Knaack's second touchdown run of the night on an eight-play scoring drive, going up 28-0 with 2:46 left in the third quarter.

"We just executed better," Zajac said of the second-half offense. "We were efficient on first down to get manageable second downs, we were able to change up the run-pass to keep them on their heels and our kids just took care of business."

The Wildcats were able to score with 3:31 left in the game to spoil the Spartans' shutout bid. Woodbury Central outgained Grundy Center, 273-256, but three Wildcat turnovers -- Knaack picked off Kluender one more time before the end of the third quarter -- kept Woodbury Central from being too much of a threat.

"We were able to win the battle at the line of scrimmage more often than not," Zajac said. "Defensively, their run game concerned us but our kids did a great job of being able to get off blocks and tackle the ball carrier."

Zinkula carried the ball 25 times for 120 yards; Knaack had 11 totes for 37 yards and the two scores and was 10-of-21 passing with no interceptions, 112 passing yards and a score.

Brayden Sawyer had 9 1/2 total tackles to lead the Spartan defenders; Bryce Greiner added six stops, including 1.5 for a loss, and two forced fumbles.

"We take a lot of pride in what we do defensively," Zajac said. "Woodbury Central has a dynamic, dangerous offense but we tried to change up what we were showing them. … Credit Chris Conger, Nick Betts, Jeff Dole and Gary Knaack for having those kids ready to play again. The kids executed the gameplan flawlessly."

The Spartans are back in the state championship after graduating a talented senior group from the top-ranked Spartans squad that fell to Iowa City Regina in the 2020 title game.

"The guys needed to believe in their own abilities and not listen to the outside noise," Zajac said. "They heard a lot of the naysayers that this team wasn't going to be as good without the kids up front, blah, blah, blah. Next. And they've responded every step of the way and I'm incredibly proud of them."

Grundy Center and West Hancock have similar revenge motivations -- West Hancock won the 2019 title game, 21-17. In 2020, Grundy Center went to Britt and defeated the Eagles, 20-14, to get back to the Dome.

"This is what we've been wanting all year," Zinkula said. "A big solid matchup to win it all."

Zajac imagines the Eagles have been hoping for this outcome, too.

"We've probably been the two best Class A teams over the last three years," Zajac said. "We're going to be excited to play them."

And both teams will likely bring their entire communities along for the ride, especially with Grundy Center right down the road. Knaack noted how much better the atmosphere was compared to last season's Dome games that were very limited in attendance due to COVID protocols.

"Most of the town was here [today], hopefully someone turned the lights off on the way out," Zajac added. "It was fantastic. That's the type of energy our kids love and really feed off of."


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