Putting it all together—E-S Cards claim share of conference title, prepare for playoff run
by Beth Kraft
For an Eleva-Strum football team that hasn’t won more than three games per season in six years, a 7-2 overall record for the 2014 season is pretty impressive. Toss in the program’s first playoff appearance since 2008 and a Dairyland Conference co-champ title for good measure, and you have the makings for the Cards’ most memorable season since E-S took home the state title in 2007.
It’s been E-S head coach Chad Hanson’s goal to return the Cardinals to their former dominance since he took over the program two years ago. This year, both he and the players who have stuck through the tough seasons when there was little to celebrate are beginning to reap the rewards of their hard work.
E-S punched its ticket to the playoffs a few weeks ago, but the Cards still had something big to play for in their final game of regular season play on Friday night, Oct. 17, as they battled Independence/Gilmanton for a share of the Dairyland Conference title. The Indees held E-S to its lowest scoring output since a two-point loss to Melrose-Mindoro back on Sept. 5, but the Cardinals’ defense was up to the challenge against I/G’s firepower en route to the 16-6 victory.
“Our defense played awesome; they’ve played awesome all season long,” said Hanson of his team, which held an Indees squad that has averaged over 90 passing yards per game this year to just 38 yards in the air and no touchdown passes in the game.
“I’m just really happy and proud of my team,” grinned senior Gage Everson, who led the Cardinals with 40 yards on the ground. “They’ve really worked through the season overcoming obstacles. I’m glad we got to this point.”
The game was controlled heavily by defensive play from the get-go. It took a fake punt play on a toss from sophomore Mathew Higley to Everson on fourth down to get the Cards in scoring position in the first quarter. The sneak attack was soon followed by an eight-yard touchdown run by sophomore Quinn Olson, after which Everson barreled into the end zone for the two-point conversion to give E-S the 8-0 lead.
Indy/Gilmanton answered back in the second quarter as Austen Whitwam tumbled across the goal line with a six-yard touchdown run to put the Indees on the board, but a failed conversion kept them behind, 8-6, at the half.
Everson says missed blocking assignments made it tough for Eleva-Strum’s usually-formidable ground game to get its momentum going in the first half.
“Coming into halftime that was our goal was to get the blocking figured out, and we did,” he said.
The teams held each other scoreless in the third, but E-S built momentum with one defensive stop after another that paid off with their second touchdown of the game early in the final period. With less than 11 minutes to play, senior quarterback Kelton Olson scampered 20 yards to paydirt followed by the successful two-point conversion by Quinn Olson for the 10-point E-S lead that would hold through the final buzzer. Defensive stops were once again big as the clock wound down with the momentum clearly on the Cards’ side.
Although Hanson’s goal of taking the Cards back to the playoffs became reality this year, the coach has more in mind for his team.
“Before I came back, at one point Eleva-Strum was at the top and the envy of small-school football,” Hanson said. “We’ve worked hard to try to get us back there. We’re obviously not there yet but we’re taking steps to get there.”
Among those steps were this year’s seniors returning to the gridiron this fall—something that hadn’t happened enough in years past.
“I’ve said that since I got here that the seniors have to come back and play,” Hanson said. “They came back and they played this year and that’s the start of it since we have a group of seniors that are leading.”
With the Cards’ underclassmen able to follow those experienced seniors and learn rather than having to step up into unfamiliar leadership positions their first year on varsity, the squad’s mentality has also shifted in a much more positive direction.
“They’re believing that they can win now and a lot of that is the hard work that they’ve put in in the off-season,” says Hanson, ticking off team bonding tasks including time spent in the weight room and on community service events together, helping cultivate a strong camaraderie.
Everson was quick to credit his coach for the program’s turnaround this season.
“He’s really pushed us all season, pushed us to be the best we can,” he said of Hanson.
It took the Cards a few games to come together, including a lopsided season-opening loss to Colfax and a painful 14-12 defeat at Melrose-Mindoro two weeks later for a 1-2 start to the year.
“That put us behind [in the conference standings], so when we got to this game we had to give a little bit more in the end and we gave it tonight,” Hanson said. “We didn’t fold. That’s what all that hard work does.”
Since those first three games, E-S has rattled off six straight victories to earn a No. 3 seed and home field advantage for this Friday’s Level 1 playoff game in which the Cards will face No. 6 Loyal (5-4 overall).
Hanson said he hopes to see his squad snag a few playoff victories, continuing to elevate the program, but he acknowledged the playoffs are a whole different ball game where season records and past accomplishments become somewhat meaningless.
As a senior preparing for his first playoff game, the excitement of Everson and his teammates was palpable.
“I can’t wait,” Everson said before continuing co-conference championship celebrations with family, friends and teammates last Friday.
Yet if Hanson had it his way, E-S didn’t bask in its past successes for long as they headed back to practice this week. The last time the Cards made it to the postseason, much of his current team was in upper elementary school, he pointed out.
“We’re going in really green as far as playoffs go,” Hanson said. “The kids really have no idea what it is. I’ve been there, and it’s my job to get them to understand what it is to be in the playoffs.”
Kickoff for Eleva-Strum’s Division 7 playoff match-up with Loyal is set for 7 p.m. this Friday, Oct. 24, at E-S. A win in that game would pit the Cards against the winner of the No. 2 Owen-Withee/No. 7 Turtle Lake game in Level 2 next week.