Late-game football feats propel Lions to another winning season


Spring Grove seniors from left are Payton Leahy, Chandler Bergrud, Kyle Hagen, Carter Bratland, John Koch, Brandon Anderson, Michael Blackburn and Wyatt Murphy. Photo by Aimee Murphy
By: 
S. Lee Epps

It was rarely over before it was over for the mostly inexperienced 2019 Spring Grove football boys, who with a 7-3 record, achieved a 10th straight winning season - all under 13-year veteran head coach Zach Hauser (110-33). 

Averaging 26 points per game while giving up 23 would indicate a record more like a break-even 5-5 than the actual 7-3 result. The difference between winning records, losing records or breaking even often comes down to performance in close games. That was the story for the 2019 Lions more often than not.

There were not quite as many wins as the Lions had enjoyed during the preceding eight straight trips to the section championship game and two straight state titles, but Lion fans were treated to a lot of late-game drama and heroics from a team that improved throughout the season in an evenly-matched sub-district race.

Only in two of the 10 games was the outcome decided before the fourth quarter. Spring Grove was in control with a 39-18 lead entering the fourth quarter of a 46-18 win against Kingsland. In game six, the Lions trailed 21-0 after three periods in a 21-7 setback versus Grand Meadow.

But in the other eight games (six wins, two losses), the outcome was in doubt until the final quarter and sometimes until the final play or two. 

Overall, Spring Grove outscored the opposition 75-45 during first quarters. The Lions were either ahead or tied after the first period in eight of the 10 games. And one of those two deficits was only 8-6 at Houston. 

Spring Grove outscored the opponents 44-24 in third quarters, but the Lions were outscored in fourth periods 87-64. Ironically, they earned a winning record with fourth-quarter success coming more often than not.

Fourth-period success

One major exception to that fourth-quarter scoring deficit came at Mabel-Canton in game three when the Lions trailed 22-20 before outscoring the Cougars 22-0 in the fourth quarter. A 17-yard touchdown pass from Chandler Bergrud to Isaac Griffin put Grove back in front (26-22), but that eventual 42-22 victory was still in doubt until freshman Hunter Holland forced a fumble during a quarterback sack, which was recovered in the end zone by defensive lineman Wyatt Murphy. 

With 8:41 remaining, that was the only defensive touchdown of the season in a Spring Grove game. And with the Lions coming off a disheartening home loss to LeRoy-Ostrander, that late game-changing TD at M-C may have been not only a game-changer but also a season-changer.

Two weeks later at Houston (SG 29, Houston 22), the Lions had lost a 14-point fourth-quarter lead before a 64-yard drive broke a 22-22 tie score with only 17 seconds to play. The big play was a 33-yard Bergrud-to-Caden Grinde pass down to the Hurricane 2 yard-line.

Spring Grove lost a fourth-quarter lead at Lyle/Pacelli when the one-win Athletics tied the score at 14-14 and then were a yard away from taking the lead before fumbling into the Lion end zone. 

But it would be the Grove guys who would score the winning touchdown with a 26-yard Mitchell Reynolds run with 2:51 to play.

A fourth-period Lion lead was in jeopardy when state-ranked Southland got within three points at 21-18. But on the next play from scrimmage, a 55-yard Bergrud-to-Grinde pass down to the Rebel 9 yard-line led to an insurance TD (28-18).

The defense would come up with a Griffin interception and late pass breakups by Grinde and Kyle Hagen.

One game that appeared well in hand - was not. The Lions survived with no fourth-period points in the season opener at Granada-Huntley-East Chain/Truman. A 30-14 Lion lead after three quarters was down to two points with 26 seconds remaining. Overtime was averted when Tristan Hammel sacked the Jaguar quarterback on the potential game-tying two-point conversion attempt. 

The Lions extended their winning streak to 29 games while the Jaguars lost for the 17th straight time. G-H-EC/T would finish at 3-7 and the Lions 7-3.

In three games, the Lions did not score at all in the second half. However, they did manage to win one of those - in the section opener. A 21-6 halftime lead over Lanesboro looked like it might hold until the Burros forced and recovered a fumble to set up a touchdown with 3:35 to play.

Had the Burros' two-point, extra-points pass been successful, it would have been a one-score margin. But a determined pass rush by Grinde forced a rushed and incomplete pass. The Lions won 21-12.

Second half dejection

The Lions' other two scoreless second halves did result in losses. In week two, state-ranked No. 2 Spring Grove trailed then No. 12 (and later No. 2) LeRoy-Ostrander only 23-22 after a first-half shootout 

But six second-half turnovers doomed the Lions, while the Cardinals kept on scoring. L-O won the second half 30-0, including 24 points in the final quarter, on the way to a resounding 53-22 road rout.

The season ended with a second-half shutout in the section semi-finals at Grand Meadow. Spring Grove came from behind to lead 14-9 at halftime, but the Lions would not score again. The Superlarks added two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to win 24-14.

By the numbers

Griffin was successful from 28 yards on the only field goal attempt of the season - the first field goal try in two years and the first made field goal in three seasons (2016).

The Spring Grove boys had a relatively balanced attack with 57% of their yardage coming through the air and 43% on the ground. Likewise, there were 21 passing touchdowns and 16 rushing touchdowns. 

The opponents were not as balanced with two-thirds of their yardage (66%) coming on running plays and only one-third (34%) through the air. And likewise, the other guys crossed the goal line 23 times on the ground and 10 times with a pass.  

Be it pass or run, both Spring Grove and the opposition scored on one-third (33%) of their possessions.

Averaging fewer than two turnovers per game (1.9), Grove won the turnover battle for the 11th consecutive season with 19 lost possessions while getting 22 takeaways.

The Lions fumbled more often than the opposition (36 to 29) but both lost 12 fumbles. Despite passing far more often than the other teams, Spring Grove threw three fewer interceptions (7 to 10).

The Lions were blessed with elusive speed at running back but lacked a power back in short-yardage situations. That may partly explain a significant drop-off in both third-down and red zone conversions. 

The 34% success rate on third downs was the first below 50% in in nine years. But the opponents were not much better, being limited to 39% success by the Lion defense.

In the red zone (within opponents' 20 yard-line), the Lions' 66% scoring success rate was the first time below 80% in eight years. This fall, the opponents scored 81% of the time they penetrated the Lion 20 yard-line.

Sub-district rankings

In the nine-team East Sub-district (of the 9-man South District), Spring Grove finished tied for third place with Southland, each with 5-2 league records.

In the eight regular season games, the Lions ranked third in turnover margin (+2), fewest penalties (41) and fewest penalty yards (43 yards per game.) 

They finished fourth in sub-district scoring (28 ppg) and fifth in points allowed (25 ppg). They were also fourth in total offense (345 yards per game) and sixth in total defense (332 ypg).

Questions answered

There were some big state championship shoes to fill as the Lions returned only three starters on both offense and defense and none of the kickers.

As indicated in the first three games - two fourth-quarter close calls and a scoreless second-half meltdown loss - there would be growing pains. But after that shocking 31-point loss to L-O in week two, the Lions would win six of their next seven games.

Both late-season disappointments came against eventual section champion Grand Meadow. The Superlarks outscored their other two section opponents 77-0, but Spring Grove led the Larks until the final seven and half minutes of the section semi-final.

The inexperienced Lions came a long way and came through in most critical fourth-quarter, do-or-die situations.

Line coach Kaare Sanness said considering improvement, "this team from game one to game 10, was one of the best he has ever been a part of." 

The game eight win against state-ranked Southland, according to offensive coordinator Kody Moore, was the first time putting four quarters together on the same night.

Getting better from game to game is the goal of every coaching staff.

Next year

All eight graduating seniors saw significant action. Five juniors, only two sophomores, five freshmen and an eighth grader retain eligibility for 2020.

The B-team boys (3-1) outscored the opposition 98 to 14 while winning their first three games before turnovers sabotaged the finale at Mabel-Canton.

Editor's note: The main emphasis of this article is the team record, statistics, etc. Individual players will be highlighted in upcoming coverage of awards.

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Spring Grove Football 2019

7 p.m. kickoff / home games in bold, *sub-district games 

>>7 wins, 3 losses (5-2 sub-district)

W at GHEC/Truman 30-28     

L vs. LeRoy-Ostrander*22-53         

W at Mabel-Canton*42-22      

W vs.Kingsland*46-18

W at Houston*29-22   

L vs. Grand Meadow*7-21

W at Lyle/Pacelli* 20-14

W vs. Southland*28-18

SECTION; won vs. Lanesboro 21-12

SECTION: lost at Grand Meadow 14-24

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B-team football

>>3 wins, 1 loss (season complete)

W at Houston 26-8

W vs. LeRoy-Ostrander 36-6

W vs. Grand Meadow 36-6

L at Mabel-Canton 12-22

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Spring Grove/Mabel-Canton junior high football

>>2 wins, 5 losses (season complete)

L vs. Kingsland 0-33

L at Houston 0-7

W at Lyle/Pacelli 20-19

W vs. Lansing Kee 40-6

L vs. Grand Meadow 13-40

L at Lanesboro 6-54

L at Southland 6-42

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SECTION ONE 9-MAN FOOTBALL

QUARTERFINALS

#1 LeRoy-Ostrander 38, #8 Mabel-Canton 22 

#5 Houston 46, #4 Southland 18

#3 Spring Grove 21,  #6 Lanesboro 12 

#2 Grand Meadow 42,  #7 Kingsland 0 

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SEMI-FINALS

Grand Meadow 24, Spring Grove 14

Houston 44, LeRoy-Ostrander 18

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FINALS: (#2) Grand Meadow 35, (#5) Houston 0

STATE QUARTERFINALS: Mountain Lake Area 42, Grand Meadow 12