Sioux City Heelan didn’t carry a head of steam into the Class 3-A football playoffs.
In the regular-season finale, the Crusaders committed six turnovers and 13 penalties in a 21-14 loss to Spencer.
“You’re always a little leery how a team’s going to bounce back from a loss,” Heelan coach Roger Jansen said. “I think the kids bounced back unbelievably. I think we all learned a valuable lesson from it. I think it might have been the best thing that happened.”
Fifth-rated Heelan (12-1) hopes an even better thing will happen Thursday night. The Crusaders will meet top-rated Decorah (13-0) in the state final at 7:06 p.m. in the UNI-Dome, and they’d love to be celebrating a state title around 10 o’clock.
In order to do that, Heelan will have to solve a veteran, explosive Vikings team that is making its third finals appearance in five years. Decorah took a 14-13 lead into the fourth quarter of last year’s 3-A title game, but lost 21-14 to Union.
This year, while Heelan raced to a 21-0 lead in the first five minutes of its 42-14 semifinal win against Grinnell to clinch its fourth championship appearance in six years, Decorah had an equally easy time in steamrolling Williamsburg 48-7.
“I think they know that we’re in for a dogfight, and it’s going to be a close ballgame,” Jansen said. “It’s a great opportunity for these kids and they’re excited about it.”
Decorah isn’t a finesse team. Coach Bill Post’s squad wants to run it down your throat with 6-foot-2, 207-pound senior Josey Jewell (1,154 rushing yards, 18 TDs, 8.1 yards per carry) and 6-0, 195-pound junior Holt Johansen (1,104 rushing yards, 14 TDs, 8.2 yards per carry).
The Vikings average less than eight pass attempts per game, but Jacob Kvale has thrown for 760 yards and 11 TDs with one interception when the defense crowds the line of scrimmage.
“I can’t ever remember a team with both running backs averaging over 8 yards per carry,” Jansen said. “That’s what they hang their hat on. When they do throw the ball, it’s normally for a real big play because they lull defenses to sleep.”
Heelan thrived on the fast track of the UNI-Dome in the semifinals. Junior Trent Solsma passed for 228 yards and four scores, running his season totals to 2,947 yards and 37 TDs. He could become the 14th player in Iowa prep history to eclipse 3,000 yards in a season. Philip Jacobson had 114 receiving yards and a score in the semifinals while Connor Niles had three receiving touchdowns. Freshman Jack Wegher, a 5-10, 175-pounder, carried 21 times for 122 yards.
Wegher is the younger brother of Brandon Wegher. The last time Heelan met Decorah was in the 2008 finals, which Heelan won 35-10. In that game, Brandon Wegher ran for 241 yards and four scores and returned an interception 100 yards for a fifth touchdown.
Four years later against the same opponent, the Crusaders will be seeking their fourth state title in 11 finals appearances.
“These kids, they’ve worked hard,” Jansen said. “They deserve to be here. I would be absolutely shocked if they didn’t come out and leave it all there on the football field. It’s just unfortunate that the two quality teams that are in it, one of them’s going to have to lose.”
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