A rematch of 2016 state final, Lynx with another hill to climb

WCHS, Pella share the same blemish entering postseason

Webster City’s Hunter Hayes (44) is run down by Boone’s Tyler Casotti (21) as John Imerman (15) chases the play during last Friday’s game in Boone. Hayes and the ninth-ranked Lynx will be in Pella to face the No. 5 Dutch in a Class 3A first-round state playoffs game tonight. DFJ photo/Troy Banning

WEBSTER CITY — It’s the first-round match-up that pops off the page, almost as if it was surrounded by flashing neon lights with carnival music blaring in the background.

Reigning state champion against reigning state runner-up. A rematch of the final game of 2016, only this time at a much earlier juncture of the playoffs.

Buckle up, kids. This one should be fun.

Ninth-ranked Webster City (8-1) will travel south to face fifth-ranked and three-time defending state champion Pella (8-1) in an opening-round tilt of the Class 3A state playoffs this evening. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.

The Dutch, who haven’t lost a playoff game since the quarterfinal round in 2013 to eventual state champion Washington, were Goliath to Webster City’s David when they met inside the UNI-Dome last Nov. 17, a game that went Pella’s way, 28-18.

WCHS tailback Zane Williams is healthy and enters tonight with 1,258 yards rushing. DFJ photo/Troy Banning

But this isn’t 2016 and neither team is what it was 11 months ago. The two teams combined to graduate more than 5,000 yards of offense and multiple first-team all-state players.

Still, both teams have the talent and experience to make another run.

“It is different except they’re still very big and very talented,” WCHS head coach Bob Howard said of the Dutch. “They’re still a very good football team and they try to be balanced.”

Both teams enter the playoffs with a single blemish handed out by second-ranked Dallas Center-Grimes (9-0), a potential quarterfinal-round opponent should the Mustangs get by 10th-ranked Carlisle (8-1) tonight. DC-G ended Pella’s 42-game winning streak, 10-7, in Week 2 and then handed WCHS a 20-0 setback in Week 6.

But the Lynx weren’t exactly healthy when they visited Grimes. It was the first of three games they played without starting tailback Zane Williams and then back-up tailback Trace Kepler went down with a knee injury in the second quarter.

WCHS head coach Bob Howard (right) sends in a play with Lynx wide receiver Carson Struchen last Friday night in Boone. DFJ photo/Troy Banning

Williams is now healthy and doesn’t appear to have missed a beat. Coming off a nearly month-long layoff last week, he carried the ball 39 times for 145 yards and two touchdowns, and he also intercepted two passes in a 27-14 victory over Boone that assured WCHS of its 10th consecutive trip to the playoffs.

Williams enters tonight’s elimination game with 1,258 yards rushing, the fifth-best total in 3A, and 18 touchdowns.

“He’s obviously a huge part of the team and having him back is a huge deal,” Howard said.

Williams and spinback Dylan Steen will be asked to carry the bulk of the rushing offense behind a talented offensive line that has helped to generate 35.4 points per game. Steen has accounted for 1,249 yards of total offense — 760 rushing and 489 passing — and could hold the keys to whether WCHS is able to advance.

It will be all about ball control for the Lynx.

“I think we can move the ball and we’ll have to keep the ball away from them,” Howard said. “We need to drive and score, and that’s a real cliche thing to say, but that’s what tough games come down to.”

Playing keep away from the Dutch will be the Lynx best defense. Pella also averages better than 35 points per game, only it does it in different ways than a year ago. Class 3A Player of the Year Nick Finney, the team’s quarterback a season ago, is gone, as are his two favorite 6-foot-5 targets on the perimeter, receivers Donovan Holterhaus and Ryan Van Wyk.

Ryan Gustafson has taken over under center and thrown for 1,245 yards and 10 touchdowns. Avery Van Zee, who rushed for 67 yards and a TD in last fall’s title game, is back; he averages 6.4 yards per carry and has reached the end zone 11 times. Bruising back Reece Schnell (630 yards, 12 TD’s) is Pella’s leading rusher.

“We match up better than we did last year, but that still doesn’t mean we match up real well,” Howard said. “They’re running the same plays this year, but they do it differently by who’s lined up at quarterback. (Gustafson) isn’t in the game all the time … they run a lot of single wing as far as I’m concerned with a lot of direct snaps to running backs, and they’re more physical up front than they were last year.”

The WCHS defense has allowed just 27 points in its last three games and intercepted Boone quarterback Mason Hulse six times last week. Steen is the state’s leader in interceptions with 10, two of which he returned for touchdowns.

Lynx defensive tackle Cooper Lawson will play a key role in slowing down Pella’s ground attack. He accumulated four tackles for loss against Boone.

Frigid temperatures and a possible rain/snow mix is in the forecast for tonight, although Howard doesn’t expect that to be a factor in the outcome. Playing on artificial turf is a different story, however, as is Pella’s depth across the board.

“It’s their home field and they practice on it all the time,” Howard said. “We have to do an awful lot of mental preparation and then hope we can hang in for the first four or five minutes of the game while our kids get used to the speed and athleticism of the other team, and that’s certainly a challenge with Pella.”

Class 3A First Round Games

Tonight, 7 p.m.

Glenwood (8-1) at Sergeant Bluff-Luton (9-0).

Sioux City Heelan (7-2) at Harlan (8-1).

Carlisle (8-1) at Dallas Center-Grimes (9-0).

Webster City (8-1) at Pella (8-1).

Oskaloosa (6-3) at Cedar Rapids Xavier (9-0).

Washington (8-1) at Davenport Assumption (7-2).

Decorah (7-2) at Solon (9-0).

Waverly-Shell Rock (8-1) at West Delaware (7-2).