CEDAR FALLS – The Easton Valley River Hawks rallied in the second half to beat Remsen St. Mary’s at the UNI-Dome on Wednesday afternoon, advancing to the final round in the Iowa High School 8-man playoffs to compete for a state title next Thursday.
“It’s unbelievable,” junior Carson Fuegen said. “It’s something that you dream about as a kid, so actually doing it ... it’s just amazing and I don’t know how else to say it.”
Easton Valley head Coach Tony Johnson had just one word to describe Wednesday’s semifinal contest: a dogfight.
And it was. The lead changed five times before Easton Valley took the final lead in the fourth quarter.
“Our mindset each and every week is great,” senior Conor Gruver said. “We’re always striving for that win. We’re right where we want to be, we’re playing with a championship.”
Down 36-35 in the fourth, junior Carson Fuegen took the kick off and put the ball on the 35 to start their possession. On third-and-11, senior quarterback Conor Gruver found the hands of Hayden Felkey for a first down, Felkey falling at the 11-yard line.
A couple carries moved them a few yards, but Gruver ended the drive with a 5-yard snap to Andin Farrell in the middle of the endzone, putting the River Hawks on top 42-36.
After that, the defense stepped up for one of many huge stops in the game. That included two tackles in the backfield from Felkey, who ended with 3.5 sacks and four tackles for a loss.
“We knew he [quarterback Cael Ortmann] could make the pass so we were fighting with everything we had to get through,” Charlie Simpson said. “We had a couple guys who helped put pressure on him to throw it.”
The River Hawks took over on the 23-yard line and then Gruver took a final knee.
“That was amazing,” Gruver said. “Those are some of my favorite plays. It might be pretty boring, but kneeling at the end means about everything. Mentally, it’s the best feeling ever when Coach calls that ‘River Hawk Nail’ and we walk in there just like, we did it.”
A few uncharacteristic mistakes came out of the first 12 minutes of the game. A fumble happened on the first drive, and then on the second the River Hawks moved all the way to the 3-yard line only to be pushed back by two penalties. That resulted in no score.
The River Hawks struck on their third possession. A couple of big pass plays – one to Hayden Felkey and one to Carson Fuegen – put the River Hawks in scoring position one more time.
“Worst case scenario, let a playmaker go up and make the play,” Gruver said. “It helps with the playmakers we have running around.”
This time, Charlie Simpson punched it in from inches out.
The River Hawks started playing like they have back home in Preston in the second quarter and jumped to a 21-8 lead in the first half.
With 5:48 left in the second quarter, Fuegen picked off a pass attempt from the Hawks. Fuegen followed that up with a big run, and two plays later Conor Gruver found Aidan Gruver for a 5-yard scoring pass to give the River Hawks their first lead.
A short punt a few plays later gave Easton Valley a short lead, and just two plays later Gruver found Fuegen in the endzone.
It was never over, though. St. Mary’s grabbed the one-point lead again before the half was up. RSM quarterback Cael Ortmann found ways to get third down passes off more than once, sending long passes down field that the River Hawks struggled to cover.
“It was a little bit of us getting out of position,” Fuegen said. “We weren’t flowing as good as we usually do, we got fixed up and got a lot of pressure throughout the game. It was our fault and on those plays we didn’t play like we should have, but at the end of the game we did.”
Two of those late in the second quarter gave the Hawks the lead heading into the lock rooms at half.
“We had left some points out there,” Coach Johnson said. “We felt we had to clean up a couple things defensively, but we were doing a real nice job of stopping what they wanted to do. At the half, we were happy with where we are. We were comfortable.”
Coming out to the second half, the lead changed three more times before the River Hawks made their final fourth quarter push.
Charlie Simpson had two touchdowns and 142 rushing yards for the River Hawks. The River Hawks tripled the Hawks’ rushing yards, with Simpson finding holes in the defense all afternoon.
“The blockers,” Simpson said. “There were times I should have followed the hole and I didn’t but my blockers did really good tonight. Second half, I flipped the switch and got my head in the game and got going.”
He kicked off the second half with a huge touchdown. Simpson spun out of a tackle around the 40-yard line and then found an open field in front of him to kick off second half scoring.
“We got in the huddle and I told them, I know whoever gets in my way I’m going to be mad and I’m running through,” Simpson said. “It just so happens, one of the smaller guys got in my way and I knew I had that chance. I took it, and I took off.”
Carson Fuegen had 45 rushing yards and 155 receiving yards, good for another two touchdowns from him.
“We really were just reading our blocks,” Fuegen agreed. “Our blockers do such a good job of creating space, even if it’s not the designated hole they create a hole. If you can read that, you’re going to get yards on our offense and that was the biggest thing.”
Tony Johnson is in his fourth year as a head coach, making the group of seniors his first class to be with him all four years.
“It’s a little surreal,” Johnson said. “I’m just so proud of the kids – talk about a dog fight. Back and forth, back and forth, and we just kept asking for more from them. They showed tremendous heart and were just not going to be denied. I’m super proud of the kids and what they’ve been able to accomplish this year.”
The River Hawks will take on CAM, who won in their semifinal game Wednesday morning. That game will be back at the UNI-Dome at 9:30 a.m. Thursday. The River Hawks are competing for the school’s first state title as Easton Valley, since Preston and East Central merged in 2013.