OTTUMWA — One team has never been there. One team hasn't been there in over a decade.
For the Albia and Pekin football teams, however, the UNI-Dome is just as close for both.
One more win is all it's going to take for the second-ranked (2A) Blue Demons and 10th-ranked (A) Panthers to make that trip to Cedar Falls every football team in the state starts the year dreaming about. For two teams that have combined to win 20 of 22 games so far this fall, one more win apiece seems like such a simple hurdle to cross to be one of those 24 teams that will journey to northeastern Iowa next week.
The hurdles in front of the Panthers and Blue Demons, however, are teams that own a perfect 22-0 record combined.
Second-ranked BGM, 11-0 and ranked second in Class A, will play host to No. 10 Pekin tonight. Second-ranked Albia, also 11-0 and also ranked second in 2A, will play host to a fellow top-five unbeaten tonight when 11-0, No. 4 Mediapolis pays a visit to Monroe County.
Two area teams in two state quarterfinal showdowns looking for two wins that will be anything but easy to obtain.
And for both teams, it’s exactly where they want to be.
"This feels great,” Albia running back Alex Schultz said. “This is what we've been aiming for all year.”
“I want BGM,” Pekin running back Petie Clubb said. “I would have taken Lynnville-Sully, but I want BGM in this game.”
The Panthers (9-2) are going to have to win on the road after suffering a regular-season loss to the Bears just two weeks earlier. In the battle for the Class A, District 6 crown, the Bears attacked early from the air to build a lead and took advantage of two second-half turnovers deep in its own territory to hold off Pekin in a 19-7 victory that has allowed BGM home field advantage throughout the postseason so far.
The Panthers, however, enter this rematch with BGM a much different mindset.
“We came out and played kind of scared against them the first time. We thought maybe they were going to run all over us,” Clubb said. “Once that went away, we played with them. I think if we can come out this time and set the tempo, it’s going to be a much different game this time around.”
BGM quarterback Bryan Kriegel hit six of his first seven passes in the first half, leading the Bears down the field with his arm to a pair of touchdown drives that were finished by quarterback sneaks into the end zone. Pekin kept itself from being able to answer the second score of the night, which snapped a 7-7 tie, as three turnovers helped set up a field goal by Bears’ kicker Kyle Gritsch and prevented two potential touchdown drives for the Panthers.
Aside from those mistakes, Pekin in many ways outplayed BGM as the game wore along. Donovan is hopeful that will serve as a difference in how the rematch between the two teams will play out.
“It helps a ton. It helps our kids understand that not only can we play with (BGM), but it also sends a message that (BGM) has to respect us too,” Donovan said. “It’s going to be a great game, but we can’t have mistakes and we have to keep playing that same great run defense we played against them the first time.”
The Panthers are certainly going into this rematch playing at a high level after shutting out Lone Tree, 43-0, to snap a six-game postseason losing streak that had stretched over 11 years. Pekin also got one revenge victory Monday; avenging a 14-0 shutout loss in the opening round of the Class A playoffs at Lisbon by winning convincingly 27-6 over the Lions in second round action.
“There’s no question we didn’t like the way we left Lisbon last year. We felt like we outplayed them and lost the game,” Donovan said. “I sensed it among the kids and among the coaching staff. It’s something we talked about. We all felt the same inside. We wanted to get that taste out of our mouths and move on.”
The Panthers set an early tone on the road on Monday as Chase Copeland’s 56-yard run on the second play from scrimmage, opening up the first of two first-quarter touchdown drives for Pekin. It’s that kind of start that the Panthers would love to have tonight in Brooklyn, but one that Donovan is not surprised to see from his team at this point of the year.
“I think we thought we could do this. I think, as a coaching staff, we could run on Lisbon and attack on offense right from the start,” Donovan said. “The one thing I reminded the kids about after that early score was there was no need to celebrate. We completely expect to strike right away like that.”
For Albia, Friday’s game will be a chance to ride the momentum of a historically-great season for the program to the program’s first trip to Cedar Falls. The Blue Demons enter tonight’s showdown with the Bulldogs having proven they can beat any number of teams in any number of ways.
So far in the postseason, physical defense has been a calling card for both the Panthers and Blue Demons. Facing 1,000-yard running back Essa Baylor of Mid-Prairie on Monday, Albia held the Golden Hawk back to five total yards on the ground on just nine carries as Mid-Prairie lost a yard on 12 carries as a team.
Just five nights earlier, however, Albia’s defense looked like it could be run on with Louisa-Muscatine senior back Blake Kemp ran for 192 yards in the Blue Demons opening-round contest. The Blue Demons countered on a rainy Wednesday night by not allowing a pass completion and forced two fumbles to blunt potential scoring drives by L&M.
"(Louisa-Muscatine) runs the double wing and there's a lot of motion and on every play. There are four backs who could get the ball, so it's very deceptive and very deceiving,” Albia head coach Jerry Staton said. “They ran it well and they had the perfect field for it — this mushy, wet field we had. So we had to come back and really play hard to get it under control.”
For Albia’s part, the offense of the Blue Demons hasn’t been one-dimensional at all in the postseason. Schultz had 338 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the first two postseason victories in program history for Albia, but senior quarterback Brett Leshen proved on Monday against Mid-Prairie that lining up to stop the run for opposing defenses can be just as fatal.
Leshen hit Zach Hugen four times on Monday for 86 yards, including a pair of touchdown passes that came on fourth down which proved to make a huge difference in Albia’s 10-point win.
"I told them I was very proud of them, because they’ve had to take down two very tough opponents,” Staton said. "I'm proud of the way we play. Our kids are very sportsmanlike in the way they play. We don't cheap shot, we don't jabber at the people. There are lots of ways of winning and it's not always on the scoreboard and our kids are winners not just on the scoreboard and I'm proud of that and want that to continue.”
It wasn’t nearly as easy for Mediapolis to get to tonight’s 2A quarterfinal battle of top-five unbeaten as the Bulldogs are looking to return to the UNI-Dome after making it to the state title game last year. After a 21-0 shutout of PCM, whom Albia beat 49-6 in the regular season; Mepo had to rally from behind to edge Bondurant-Farrar despite three interceptions thrown by Bulldog senior quarterback Drew Foster.
For one team, tonight will be about revenge and returning a high level of success to a proud program. For another, it will be about continuing to raise the bar of a program that is just starting its own proud football tradition.
Pekin and Albia both know it will be tough to earn their trips to Cedar Falls. Something as great as being in the spotlight of elite state football teams should be.
“It should be a doozy,” Donovan said.
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