STATE CHAMPIONS: Grundy Center shuts out West Hancock for Class A trophy

Patrick Brown III (72) holds up the state championship trophy as Austin Betts (2) and the other Grundy Center seniors celebrate their 27-0 victory over West Hancock on Thursday. (Jake Ryder photo)
Jake Ryder
The Grundy Register

CEDAR FALLS – There’s no group of Class A football players that have suited up for more games in the last four years than this year’s Grundy Center senior class.

Those seniors brought that experience, learning from both the good and the bad, and with their teammates, coaches, and community, turned it into something perfect Thursday afternoon at the UNI-Dome.

The Spartans are, finally, state champions once again. After three consecutive runner-up finishes, they shut out defending champs West Hancock, 27-0, and finished with a pristine 13-0 record and the school’s first state title since 1988.

“Every high school boy that plays football dreams of this,” said Patrick Brown III, one of those seniors. “It’s just the best feeling knowing that we finally did it.”

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Brown III, along with Austin Betts, Ben Wegmann, Stuart Whitehill, Ethan Aswegan and Cooper Hoy, get their grand send-off as Grundy Center seniors.

“Fifty-one high school games in four years,” Grundy Center football head coach Travis Zajac said. “It’s phenomenal. And with as much as they’ve had to sacrifice, some played a lot, some didn’t play much, but they stuck with it. And they cared. And I’m so happy for them.”

The Spartans held the ground-and-pound Eagle offense to 143 total yards, with only 65 in the first half that ended with a 17-0 halftime lead. It’s the first time West Hancock has been shut out since Aug. 24, 2018 - a span of 60 games. It’s the first shutout in a Class A championship game since 2002.

As has been the case for this season and the three before it that ended in the state title game, praise was heaped onto the defensive coaching staff led by coordinator Chris Conger.

“Coach Conger sets us up for greatness,” said Clay Saak, who led the Spartans with 6.5 total tackles on Thursday. “The players take that and execute it, but we just had to play with high energy. They’re a very good team, but we kept the energy high, kept going, and brought the physicality.”

Justin Knaack ran for 50 yards on the first play of scrimmage, which set up a 31-yard Colin Gordon field goal and a 3-0 lead just over a minute into the game.

The Eagles went three-and-out and Tate Jirovsky snagged a 26-yard pass on a lob from Gordon to the back corner of the endzone, one of two 26-yard pass plays from Gordon to Jirovsky on the drive, for a 10-0 Spartan lead with 6:43 left in the first.

“I credit Colin and the coaches for the play call,” Jirovsky said. “He put a great ball up and I made the play.”

The teams traded punts before the Eagles’ first taste of Grundy Center territory to start the second quarter, only for Gordon to go up to swat a West Hancock pass attempt into the diving arms of Patrick Brown III.

The only turnover of the game by either team didn’t result in points for Grundy, but the Spartans played the field position game and ran a two-minute drill before halftime ending in a nine-yard touchdown pass to Jirovsky and pushing the lead to 17-0.

“He’s a six-foot-four, state track dude,” Gordon said of Jirovsky. “You throw it up to him, he’s probably coming down with it, especially against their smaller corners. And what makes us so dangerous is that Tiernan [Vokes] has had his big games, Ben [Wegmann]’s had a couple big games. You can’t really just stop one or the other.”

Kellen Smith got a long kickoff return for West Hancock on the ensuing kick to get near midfield, but the Eagles’ attempt at a desperation heave before halftime was thwarted by Ryker Thoren, delivering his second sack of the day to end the half.

West Hancock’s first drive of the second half ended in a punt, and while the Spartans were denied the end zone after driving to the Eagle 4-yard line, Gordon tacked on a 30-yard field goal for a 20-0 lead, and more importantly kept the ball out of the Eagles’ hands for six minutes.

The Eagles broke deep into Spartan territory on a 46-yard Rylan Barnes catch but the Spartans held to turn the ball over on downs.

Another five-minute-plus drive delivered the dagger, with Gordon diving across the goal line for a touchdown and a 27-0 lead with just under eight minutes to go.

It was the exclamation point on an exceptional junior season for Gordon, who was tasked with following last year’s Class A state captain Logan Knaack.

“I learned a lot from Logan, about how we operate,” Gordon said. “But Coach Rekers came in this year and helped me with my footwork and he’s someone I can talk to about anything. It’s just coaching really, and doing my own thing, being my own player in the offense.”

Grundy Center’s primary rival in the last four years has been the West Hancock Eagles. In 2019, the upstart Spartans made a splash but couldn’t catch the Eagles in their first UNI-Dome title game meeting. In 2020, Grundy Center had their revenge in a state quarterfinal triumph in Britt, but the Spartans ran into a massively-talented Iowa City Regina team making a cameo in Class A. 2021’s UNI-Dome rematch was captured again by the Eagles in heartbreaking fashion as the Spartans ran out of time on a last-second desperation drive.

“A lot of those players were watching us today,” Jirovsky said. “We’ve got an army behind us in our small community, and it’s great to feel all the support.”

Grundy Center is reportedly the first Class A team to reach the state title game four years in a row. Zajac joked about being old enough to remember the 1991-94 Buffalo Bills teams that made an NFL record four consecutive Super Bowls - and lost each one.

“I always felt so bad for those Bills teams because they were so talented and just ran into a buzzsaw. And we’ve been right there on the edge, right there on the precipice,” Zajac said. “And we finally got one. And it’s for this team, it’s for these kids. But those kids that were a part of this 2019, 2020, and 2021 teams, this is for them, too.”

Thursday's win was a special one for Zajac's family, too. Ty Zajac has been a waterboy for his dad since his days at Dubuque Wahlert, when his final season coaching there ended with an 0-9 record.

Since then, Ty and Travis, along with Ty's older sister Lauren and their mother, Shannon, have shared 45 wins and five losses with their Spartan family heading into Thursday - and the 46th win may have been the sweetest yet.

“He’s seen it when it's been at its worst, and seen it at its best,” Travis said. “And I’m a really, really proud dad who cares an awful lot, and he sees how much I pour into it - he knows probably more about the statistical achievements of our players than I do. And I was just really, really excited to share this with him.”



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