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It took state finalists to knock out area playoff teams

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If it’s any consolation, the outstanding football teams at Mount Ayr, Murray and Creston/O-M can say they were knocked out by teams playing for a state championship last week.

Granted, Council Bluffs St. Albert, Gilbertville Don Bosco and Sioux City Bishop Heelan came up short against powerhouses Iowa City Regina, Marcus-Meriden-Cleghorn and Decorah, respectively. But, it’s obvious the teams that knocked out our area elite teams were no slouches, either.

If you saw every Creston/O-M game this season, you watched 20 all-staters perform, including nine opposing players and three Panthers on the Class 3A first team, as announced Tuesday by the Iowa Newspaper Association.

As you can see in the list published in today’s News Advertiser, the first-teamers who played against the Panthers this year were receivers Sam Markham of Atlantic and Connor Niles of Bishop Heelan, offensive lineman Bryce Sweeney of Heelan, running backs Noah Kaldenberg of Winterset and ADM’s Jordan Grove, Heelan kicker Tyler Stolen, Heelan quarterback Trent Solsma (utility selection), Heelan defensive lineman Jake Skibinski and Perry defensive back Will Whiton.

I was pleased that the INA panel of sportswriters, assisted by volunteer football coaches from all corners of the state, decided to name defensive back Luke Neitzel, linebacker Trevor Frain and defensive end Keaton Hulett of Creston/O-M to the first unit.

They were each deserving, but I worried it would be tough to devote that many coveted first-team spots to a team that did not win a playoff game.

The hard part would have been figuring out which one(s) to drop to a lower team. If you watched the Panthers, you knew Neitzel was a playmaker on both sides of the ball for three years now. And, anytime there was a ball carrier, Frain was likely to be closing in for one of his explosive hits.

And, this year, especially, it seemed every time an opposing quarterback was dropping back or rolling out to pass, there was Hulett bearing down on him full speed for a sack or a hurry.

All three of those guys could have helped any team in the state.

Frain had more than 100 tackles for the season, and those numbers are legitmate. We had a discussion about that topic at Sunday’s INA selection meeting.

You see some kids listed with 175 tackles in nine games, and you wonder how their stat team does their job. The Iowa Football Coaches Association has directed member coaches to tell their stat crews there are specific guidelines, and those are applied by the Panther stat crew.

Specifically, on every play not a touchdown or someone forced out of bounds, there is to either be a solo tackle, or no more than two players credited with assisted tackles. You are not supposed to give assists to three, four or five kids on a given play.

The other thing with relying on tackle numbers for evaluation is that sometimes you rack up big tackle numbers if your defense stinks, and you never leave the field. The impressive thing about numbers put in by Hulett and Frain, and the seven interceptions by Neitzel, is that Creston/O-M’s defense was strong, and rarely gave up extended drives covering the length of the field.

And, not to be overlooked is the blocking of Hulett and Frain as part of the offensive execution that allowed Neitzel to compile 2,016 total yards and 29 touchdowns.

Isn’t that the essence of football, blocking and tackling?

The journey didn’t quite go as far as everyone hoped, but it certainly was fun watching it along the way.

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Speaking of playmakers, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone better at improvising and creating something out of nothing than Murray’s daring quarterback, Austin Halls.

While Scott Vicker was doing a great job in his debut at the 1A meeting, representing Mount Ayr’s interests, I was wrapping things up with the Eight-Man committee Sunday afternoon. When the selections were done, I just kind of assumed quarterback Tanner Utesch of state champion MMC would be selected the captain. Then one of the coaching advisors said this:

“There would be zero controversy if you gave it to Halls, for what he’s done on both sides of the ball the past two years.”

Well, I certainly couldn’t argue that, and neither did other members of the committee.

It was fun to write the capsule profile of the captain required for the INA news release. In the process, Mustang coach Keith Shields provided an interesting tidbit.

The only other Murray player to be named all-state captain was Cole Page, who happens to be Halls’ brother-in-law. He is married to Austin’s older sister, Tara, who is a special education teacher at Murray.

There are amazing similarities between the careers of Page and Halls, besides the family ties.

Page was selected to the INA Eight-Man first team as a defensive back in 2000, and captain of the team, just like Halls. Page was named first-team quarterback by the Des Moines Register and Eight-Man Player of the Year by the Iowa Football Coaches Association. Halls was named second-team quarterback on last year’s all-state team.

Page led Murray to an 8-0 regular season record and District 3 championship in 2000, the last district title before this year’s championship run directed by Halls. That year, Adair-Casey defeated Murray 64-14 in the first ever playoff game held at Murray.

Page had been the only Murray quarterback to pass for more than 1,000 yards in a season before Halls the past two seasons.

The 2000 team averaged 59 points a game in the regular season as the highest scoring team in the state. Murray led this year’s Iowa football in scoring, averaging 65 points, second all-time only to last year’s Fremont-Mills team.

From week nine of the 1999 season through the regular season of 2000, Murray had a nine-game winning streak, only bested by the 2012 team that won 12 in a row before the semifinal 78-76 overtime loss to Don Bosco.

“Both Cole and Austin played with a similar intensity and desire to win, and are two of the best competitors, athletes and people to come through Murray High School,” Shields said.

Standing on the sideline during the quarterfinal game against Adair-Casey, as Halls was juking and spinning his way to another long touchdown on the way to a 381-yard night, former Mustang head coach Danny Jensen shook his head and said, “He’s just sick. Wow.”

It was a blast watching that Mustang squad make two runs to the Dome. There are some weapons returning, so it may not be over yet.

But it’s bound to be different not having that combination of Halls and all-state receiver Cody Scroggie posing as a threat to score any time, from anywhere. That was exciting.

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Contact the writer:

Twitter: @larrypeterson

Email: lpeterson@crestonnews.com

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