Both teams had big aspirations heading into the 2012 season.
Both showed many signs of being able to achieve those goals as the season progressed.
Both have been bitten by the injury bug, and are coming off less-than-stellar performances in the regular season finale.
So, which one moves on in the Class 3A playoffs Wednesday night?
That’s the question when fifth-ranked (Associated Press) Sioux City Bishop Heelan (8-1) hosts No. 8 Creston/Orient-Macksburg (7-2) at 7 p.m. at Sioux City Memorial Stadium. For I-29 travelers, take exit 149 (Hamilton Blvd. exit). Proceed north on Hamilton Blvd. to 17th Street. Memorial Field is located just off Hamilton Blvd. (east side) at 17th Street.
It’s the site of a not-so-pleasant conclusion to the career of longtime Panther coach Dick Bergstrom, as the Crusaders romped to a 66-2 playoff opening win over Creston/O-M in 2009.
Third-year coach Brian Morrison realizes it’s a tough challenge to face the District 2 champions on their home field, but he doesn’t foresee a repeat of 2009 occurring.
“I think our kids will compete really hard against anybody,” Morrison said. “If we can get some breaks on field position, I think we’ll be fine.”
Field position was a major issue in Friday’s 16-7 loss to Lewis Central, which cost the Panthers a District 1 championship and home game on Wednesday. Each team had one rushing touchdown, and the difference in the defensive battle was the leg of LC freshman kicker Caleb Shudak, who booted three field goals.
Also, all-state senior Luke Neitzel, the team’s quarterback with 1,925 total yards and a district-leading seven interceptions on defense, had just suffered a strained thumb on his throwing hand a few days earlier. Preparation for Friday’s game under revamped circumstances was rushed.
“The biggest thing was, we were limited to what we could do because we really had no practice time,” Morrison said. “(Quarterback) Brandon Phipps had minimal reps going into that game.”
Neitzel appeared at quarterback on some snaps, with Lewis Central loading up to stop the run, knowing Neitzel was wearing a brace on his right hand. On other plays Phipps was at quarterback, with Neitzel at running back and junior Trevor Frain back at fullback.
Going into Wednesday, the plan is set. Neitzel is at running back, where he played as a sophomore when Luke Eblen was the quarterback, and Phipps has prepared for three days as the starting quarterback. Frain is at fullback, with junior Adam Baker going full-time at guard instead of fullback. Sophomore Jordan Thompson will still see considerable action in the offensive line, Morrison said.
“Luke hasn’t thrown the ball or even gripped it with his right hand,” Morrison said. “It’s still in the brace. He can carry the ball, and he can catch the ball. He’s very athletic and obviously he’ll be fine at running back.
“Brandon is really good at going through his progressions,” Morrison added, “run and pass. He’s a very good student of the game and he competes as hard as anybody we have. We can still compete with anybody in the state. Our offensive staff and the team made good adjustments Saturday and Sunday, and our offensive game plan is good. And we’re still really good up front.”
The game plan is no secret, Morrison said.
“We’ll have to do what teams did that were successful against them — Carroll and Spencer — run right at them,” Morrison said.
Carroll, also a playoff team from District 2, played Heelan to a 17-14 game in a narrow defeat. Spencer, a run-oriented team that beat Creston/O-M in the playoffs last year, broke the Crusaders’ victory string last Friday in a 21-14 game.
Heelan, a pass-oriented team, suffered six turnovers in the game, including five intercepted passes. The team was further hampered by 13 penalties, and some key injuries.
Conner Niles, 6-foot-7 receiver with 27 catches for 438 yards and nine TDs, was held out of the game with concussion symptoms from the previous week.
The Crusaders lost freshman running back Jack Wegher to a first-half head injury, and his status for Wednesday is undetermined. Two-way line stalwart Zach Skibinski left the game midway through the fourth quarter with an ankle sprain, but was back on the field in the closing minutes.
Despite the turnovers, Heelan quarterback Trenton Solsma still competed 23 of 45 passes for 278 yards and two touchdowns. For the season he is 121-of-187 for 1,831 yards with 24 TDs and nine interceptions. He had only four pickoffs in the first eight games.
Niles is one of four receivers with at least 19 catches and 200 yards receiving. Connor Spears has a team-high 31 catches for 520 yards and nine touchdowns. Philip Jacobson and Jimmy Fitzsimmons are other key targets, and Tyler Cropley had a TD catch Friday.
“They are definitely a throw-first football team,” Morrison said. “No. 14 (Niles) is as good as we’ll see. He’s athletic, and creates huge mismatches. They really throw the ball around. You’ll see five-receiver sets, wildcat formations with the running back at quarterback, you’ll see a lot of different things.”
Wegher is the younger brother of former University of Iowa running back Brandon Wegher. He has 334 yards on 83 carries and six touchdowns.
“As a freshman, this one might be better,” Morrison said. “He’s a very good back. But it seems like they want to throw first.”
Wegher’s appearance Wednesday is questionable, however, coming off the head injury Friday.
There is some good news on the Panther injury front. Senior defensive back Caleb Thompson has been medically cleared from an early-season lower leg hairline fracture.
“Caleb says it feels good and he practiced Saturday and Sunday,” Morrison said.
That would be some welcome depth relief at a position already affected by the loss of running back and cornerback Bryce McIlravy in the Glenwood game. Maxx Walters has been operating as a two-way starter opposite senior Kainen Somers at cornerback.
Both Neitzel and Briar Evans could be in the game at the same time as safeties against Heelan’s pass-happy offense, sometimes leaving the Panthers in a three-man front. That look has been effective against similar passing teams like Harlan and Atlantic.
Heelan’s defense has likewise been stingy. Skibinski at linebacker (73 total tackles) has 17 solo tackles for loss and eight quarterback sacks. Junior Christian Brobst (70 tackles) has 17 for loss and eight sacks, too. Niles and Cropley each have three interceptions in the secondary.
Inside linebacker Frain leads the Panther defense with 101 total tackles and 14 for loss. Lineman Keaton Hulett has 64 tackles, 16 for loss and three solo sacks. Pressure on Solsma could be a key in containing the Crusader offense, Morrison acknowledged.
Improvement in special teams play is another key factor, the Panther coach said. Like Lewis Central, Heelan has a big-time kicker in Tyler Stolen, who usually causes touchbacks with his kickoffs (40 of 52) and is 7-of-11 on field goals with a 42-yarder. He is perfect on 44 extra-point kicks.
“Our punt team is as good as it gets in our district,” Morrison said. “Our kickoff team has to play well. Heelan has an explosive return game. The last two games our (punt and kick) return game has not improved. Everybody on our team has to do their job, not just the return guys.”
The winner of Wednesday’s game plays Monday against the winner of ADM (6-3) vs. Spencer (6-3), with the higher district seed hosting. ADM is the District 1 No. 2 seed, and Spencer rose to the District 2 No. 3 seed with Friday’s win. Creston/O-M is the fourth seed from District 1, based on head-to-head tiebreakers after three teams finished 4-2.
Heelan officials announced a pre-game dinner with Wendy’s chili being served prior to the game, starting when the gates open at 5 p.m.
Creston/O-M 39, Chariton 7
Creston/O-M 49, Clarinda 7
Creston/O-M 32, Atlantic 19
ADM 34, Creston/O-M 19
Creston/O-M 32, Perry 13
Creston/O-M 34, Harlan 14
Creston/O-M 14, Glenwood 0
Creston/O-M 20, Winterset 19
Lewis Central 16, Creston/O-M 7
Bishop Heelan 38, Sioux City East 28
Bishop Heelan 43, Sioux City North 15
Bishop Heelan 50, Sioux City West 0
Bishop Heelan 41, Le Mars 8
Bishop Heelan 42, Sergeant Bluff-Luton 0
Bishop Heelan 45, Storm Lake 0
Bishop Heelan 17, Carroll 14
Bishop Heelan 53, Denison-Schleswig 7
Spencer 21, Bishop Heelan 14.