CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — On the first day it could officially practice, Council Bluffs St. Albert started at 12:01 a.m.
It printed T-shirts that said, “First to practice, last to play,” referencing its desire to play in the state championship game.
After a 48-0 loss in their second game, that goal seemed a long way off for the Falcons.
But on championship Friday — the last day of Iowa's high school football season — St. Albert will charge onto the field for its seventh title game in 10 years. The eighth-rated Falcons used a superb defensive effort and razor-sharp special teams play to upset No. 3 Emmetsburg 18-7 in a Class 1-A semifinal Saturday at the UNI-Dome.
“People kind of gave us a hard time (about the shirts),” St. Albert coach Kevin Culjat said. “But we truly believed by the end of the season we were going to be a pretty good football team. I think we showed that today.”
The E-Hawks, 27-point favorites in Brent Moore's math-based computer analysis that's followed closely by many Iowa fans, were stymied by a ferocious Falcon rush defense. Emmetsburg had been the all-class state leader with 5,007 rushing yards, averaging 417.3 per game. Senior Andrew Wellik had been the all-class leader with 2,648 rushing yards and had averaged 11.2 yards per carry.
Wellik managed 30 carries for 84 yards (2.8 average), and the E-Hawks finished with 46 carries for 116 yards, as they lost to the Falcons in the semifinals for the second straight year. Averaging four pass attempts per game, they were forced to the air 19 times, although they completed 15 for 173 yards.
“All the credit goes to our defensive coaches,” Culjat said. “It was just a tremendous defensive scheme for the second year in a row.”
St. Albert (12-1) will play No. 1 Iowa City Regina (13-0) back here on Friday at 11:06 a.m. for the 1-A title. The Falcons will be seeking their fifth state championship in nine years.
Culjat has seen many memorable Falcon wins in the Dome through the years, but this one will have a special place in his heart.
“In terms of the heart our kids showed today — the heat was incredible, the number of guys we got injured and the number of guys that went in — I don't know if we've ever won a game with more heart than we won today,” Culjat said.
Personifying that heart was Culjat's son, junior quarterback Tucker Culjat. On a run midway through the first quarter, the 5-foot-9, 158-pounder was slammed to the turf on his left shoulder, dislocating it. While athletic trainer Jill White tended to him, Jon Meyerring took over at quarterback, running for nine yards, throwing for six and getting the Falcons in position so that Meyerring could kick a 37-yard field goal to open the scoring.
Tucker Culjat returned shortly thereafter and led the Falcons to victory. He was the game's leading rusher, with 14 carries for 85 yards, including touchdown runs of 10 and 26 yards. He also had punt returns of 21 and 19 yards, the latter setting up his 26-yard touchdown burst that pushed the Falcon lead to 15-0 with 24 seconds left in the first half.
“I told our trainer when I came out that I had to go back in, for everyone else,” the younger Culjat said. “It hurt a lot to get hit, especially when I'd be on the ground and guys would jump on top of the pile and roll over me. But I just had to get up and start playing again.”
Culjat's first touchdown run was set up by Jimmy Hawk's hit on Wellik, which forced a fumble that Cole Herr recovered on the E-Hawk 17. That score put St. Albert up 9-0 with 2:45 left in the half.
Leading 15-0 at the intermission, special teams play again paid dividends for the Falcons. Herr returned the second-half kickoff 78 yards to the E-Hawk 12, setting up Meyerring's 29-yard field goal that pushed the St. Albert lead to 18-0.
Defense and special teams play allowed the Falcons to dominate the field-position battle. In the first half, Emmetsburg's average starting point was its 19, while St. Albert's average was the E-Hawk 44.
“Our special teams put us in great shape all day,” Kevin Culjat said. “We spend 30 percent of our practice time on special teams and it pays off in games like this.”
Emmetsburg battled back into contention. Wellik's 10-yard touchdown run made it 18-7 with 5:38 left in the third, and then the E-Hawks put together a mammoth 18-play drive bridging the end of the third quarter.
The E-Hawks had first-and-goal on the 9, but three plays netted only three yards, and Emmetsburg missed a 25-yard field goal that could have made it a one-score game.
“We were tired but we wanted to keep going,” said the 167-pound Hawk, a hard-hitting senior safety who finished with eight solo stops and four assists. “Everybody knew that we needed to make a stop right there and keep them out of the end zone.”
St. Albert won despite being outgained 289-153. The Falcons managed just 45 second-half yards.
But they know football is about much more than numbers.
“We don't have superstars,” St. Albert defensive coordinator Jake Driver said. “But we are one heck of a football team when we play together. Our kids just played smart, played physical and played for one another.”St. Albert defeated the E-Hawks 24-6 last year.
CB St. Albert (12-1)..............................3 12 3 0—18
Emmetsburg (11-2)................................0 0 7 0— 7
SA: FG Jon Meyerring 37
SA: Tucker Culjat 10 run (kick blocked)
SA: Culjat 26 run (kick blocked)
SA: FG Meyerring 29
E: Andrew Wellik 10 run (Nick Merwalk kick)
RUSHING: SA, Tucker Culjat 14-85, Cole Herr 18-45, Jon Meyerring 3-8, Isaac Finn 4-8. E, Andrew Wellik 30-84, Jake Jackson 9-10, Cody Henderson 3-9, Austin McCartan 2-5, Nick Schany 1-2.
PASSING: SA, Tucker Culjat 1-3-0; Jon Meyerring 1-1-0, 6 yards. E, Jake Jackson 15-19-0, 173 yards.
RECEIVING: SA, Jimmy Hawk 1-6, Jake Bendgen 1-1. E, Andrew Wellik 5-55, Austin McCartan 4-52, Nick Schany 4-48, Cody Henderson 1-10, Shay Mortenson 1-8.