Another big challenge awaits Indians
Fresh off knocking off the No. 1 ranked team in Class 2A, the next challenge that awaits Spirit Lake is Carroll Kuemper, a dynamic passing team that features the second best passing offense (2,397 passing yards) and scoring offense (536 points) in the state's third largest class.
"They're just a very, very athletic team," said Spirit Lake coach Josh Bolluyt. "They're very big on their offensive line and physical up front. Their quarterback is throwing the ball very well and very efficiently. Defensively, they're ranked No. 1 as far as scoring so that's a big challenge. But when you get to this point, every game is going to be against a good opponent."
The fourth-ranked and undefeated Knights (12-0) beat West Marshall 22-13 in a war of attrition to advance to the UNI-Dome one season after the Indians ended their dome dreams by winning a 31-7 decision in the quarterfinals back in 2011. Kuemper has been incredibly tough defensively, giving up 6.75 per game and holding eight of 12 opponents below the 10-point barrier. The Knights' playoff path consisted of a 42-6 victory over Gilbert in the first round and 32-7 win over North Polk in the second round.
The fifth-ranked Indians (11-1), who have improved leaps and bounds over the course of the year, have now won four games in the past 15 days. SL shut out MOC-Floyd Valley 24-0 in the opening round, before posting a 43-7 win over Sheldon in the round of 16.
"We started this year with a ton of new juniors and seniors," said senior Rick Maris. "We've been replacing awesome guys from last year and they get better every week. I hope we can keep closing the gap and getting closer to our goal (of a state championship)."
Senior lineman Cody Norland echoed Maris's sentiments about his teammates.
"This is the best group of guys I've ever worked with," said Norland. "They work hard and put in as much time as they can."
The Knights enter the contest with a fairly balanced offense. Junior quarterback Cole Neary has completed 63.3 percent of his passes for 2,131 yards with 27 TDs and four interceptions. Chase Rupiper is the leading rusher with 1,097 yards and 18 scores, while Colby Baumhover (36 catches, 679 yards, 11 TDs), Alex Drees (39-585, 5) and Nick Greteman (27-332, 2) are the top pass catchers.
"They do a lot of things formation-wise and use the whole field and so it's going to be a big challenge," said Bolluyt.
Defensively, Kuemper is very aggressive in terms of getting after the quarterback. The Knights have averaged nearly three sacks and forced over three turnovers per game this season.
"I think it's similar to us in that they've been in games where teams have been behind and are throwing the ball and doing things that they (normally) don't want to do," said Bolluyt. "They're very good on the back end and put pressure on other teams. They create turnovers and are very opportunistic defensively."
The Knights' defensive front is led by 6-foot-1, 300-pound nose guard Alex Bruch and 6-foot, 200-pound linebacker Taylor Niehaus. Bruch is third on the team in tackles and has recorded seven sacks, while Niehaus ranks first with 151 tackles. He also has four solo and two assisted sacks, two interceptions and four fumble recoveries.
"They're just very good (defensively)," said Bolluyt. "Their middle linebacker (Taylor) Niehaus is good and they're very big up front with a 300-pound nose guard. They are a very good team all the way around."
Defensive back Alex Drees had a team-high five interceptions as well, returning three for touchdowns.
The semifinal round showdown in Cedar Falls kicks off at 4:06 p.m.
"It feels good," said Maris after his team upended top-ranked Boyden-Hull/Rock Valley 21-17 in the quarterfinals. "Now we have to act like we've been there before."