Facing an undefeated Grinnell squad, the South Tama football team needed any break it could find Friday.
The Trojans found one on the opening play by surprising the Tigers with an onside kick, which they quickly turned into seven points. Unfortunately, the momentum was short lived as No. 3 ranked Grinnell (9-0, 6-0) ran back the ensuing kickoff 70 yards for a score to swing the tide en route to a 26-17 victory over No. 7 South Tama (7-2, 4-2).
With the win, the Tigers claimed the Class 3A District 4 title and retained the Steve Kriegel Memorial Trophy. Grinnell has won 13 of the last 16 meetings in the rivalry, including the last five in the series.
South Tama senior Jose Fonseca sprints down field after catching a pass from quarterback Sam Kuhter Friday night. STC lost the game to rival Grinnell 26-17.
South Tama, 2-7 a year ago, hangs on to the No. 2 seed and will host Waverly-Shell Rock (5-4, 3-3 District 3) Wednesday, in the opening round of the playoffs.
After Dalton Beck pounced on the opening onside kick, the Trojans needed just four plays to strike first. Sam Kuhter connected with Jose Fonseca for 49 yards, before Kyle Stephenson punched it in from two yards out less than 90 seconds into the game.
Grinnell's Jack Leshen fielded the ensuing kickoff at his own 30 and shook off nearly a dozen would-be tacklers on his way to the end zone as the Tigers knotted the game at 7-all and stole away any momentum the Trojans had established.
"We had a bunch of guys trying to rip the ball, we just needed to tackle the guy. That was a huge play," STC head coach Jay Hoskey said. "That just sucked some momentum right back out of us."
"I don't know if that changed the outcome but it was one of those plays that was a turning point in the game. (Leshen) made a hell of a run, you have to give it to him. It was one those things where he should have been tackled seven or eight times," said Hoskey.
South Tama threatened on its next drive earning a first and goal from the 9, but a pair of sacks forced a turnover on downs midway through the first.
Following a shank punt, Grinnell took advantage of a short field late in the second quarter. Bryce Lidtka, who rushed for three touchdowns on the night, capped the 27-yard drive with a 3-yard burst to put the Tigers in front 14-7 with 2:35 to play before half.
South Tama put together an impressive drive to open the second half before settling for a 31-yard field goal from Fonseca to pull within 14-10 midway through the third. Once again, the Tigers had an answer as a 44-yard bomb from Eli Dunne to Leshen put the Tigers in the red zone before Lidtka scampered in for his second touchdown from 7 yards out. Austin Lowe blocked the point after as Grinnell held a 20-10 advantage.
Utilizing a big pass play of its own, South Tama quickly retaliated. Following a 30-yard strike from Sam Kuhter to Vinny Lasley along with a horse collar penalty, Kuhter plunged in from a yard out to pull the Trojans back within three with 2:43 to play in the third.
Facing a fourth-and-eight from the South Tama 40, Dunne stepped up delivering a 10-yard dart to Troy Smith. It was a constant theme of the evening as anytime the Tigers' offense seemed in trouble, Dunne came through in the clutch.
"Their execution was really sharp. (Dunne) is probably an all-state quarterback, at least he ought to be. He just made play after play, I have to take my hat off to him," said Hoskey.
"With the exception of one blown coverage, I thought our kids were in position. (Grinnell) just executed."
Dunne completed 15 of 23 passes for 156 yards and no interceptions. Stephenson rushed for 112 yards and a score on 22 carries.
Lidtka put the finishing touches on the drive with a 5-yard rumble for this third score of the contest. The Trojans broke through the line again to block the extra point, leaving the score at 26-17 with 9:28 to play.
Keyed by a 33-yard scamper from Stephenson, the Trojans marched down to the Tigers' 10 before the Grinnell defense stiffened. Facing fourth and goal at the 3, South Tama initially sent out its kicking unit for the field goal before they were forced to use a timeout with the play clock running low. The Trojans came back on the field with their offense, but the Tigers stuffed Erik Lux at the 3 and took over on downs with just less than 6 minutes to go.
Though Hoskey admitted they could have kicked the field goal, his squad was hungry for six and he felt it was a crucial play they needed to make.
"We called timeout because we were running out of time and we were going to be penalized. The kids were anxious and wanted to go for it and we needed two scores anyway," said Hoskey.
"In hindsight its 50-50, but you hope you can get three or four yards in a tough situation to win a big game. You need to make some big plays like that."
It was the Tigers that continued to make those big plays. Nearly brought down for a safety, Grinnell escaped by converting a third and nine from its own four and a third and six from its 19 to run out the clock.
Manufacturing a five-win turnaround from a year ago, the Trojans are headed to the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
"These kids put in a lot of work. We knew this senior group was capable. There's a lot of desire out there," said Hoskey.
If they can advance far enough in the postseason, Hoskey and his Trojans would certainly welcome another meeting with their rival.
"We have to take them one at a time, but there's a good chance we could play (Grinnell) again. I'm hoping we get the second chance," said Hoskey.
"That's a sound, sound team. They play defense quick and they're downhill in hitting the gaps.
Hoskey was quick to point out that they must focus on the next opponent and can't look ahead.
"We just have to get ready for this week. Whoever we play, it's going to be a good team. For every team it's a new season, I'm glad we get to come back here," said Hoskey.
South Tama will host Waverly-Shell Rock at 7 p.m. tonight at home for its first-round playoff game.