Panthers knock out defending champions
Panthers knock out defending champions

The 2023 Panthers football team (10-0) is defined by its 25 talented, close-knit seniors, but Friday against two-time defending state champions, the Harlan Cyclones (6-4), it was a freshman making the game-winning interception to advance to the Class 3A quarterfinals against Webster City.

The 35-27 victory made Creston history as it’s the first time the Panthers have defeated Harlan twice in one season, and it’s only the second time Creston has defeated the Cyclones in the postseason. Now 10-0, the team is the first to ever earn that record in school history.

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“It’s just a great group of seniors, a great group of kids,” Coach Brian Morrison said. “They love coming to practice, they love playing for each other and they just trust each other. That’s the big thing. They trust the person next to them because these kids have put the time in. They have a lot invested and they’re reaping the rewards of it.”

Fast start

On the first drive of the game, the Panthers put together a 10-play, 80-yard series to score on a 1-yard run by senior running back Brennan Hayes, taking a 7-0 lead in the first three minutes of play.

On that series, the Panthers put together a series of chunk plays, Hayes running for 19 yards on a direct snap, quarterback Cael Turner completing a pass to Weston Trapp for 12 and Hayes busting out for another 17 yards to set up a first and goal. Hayes ran for 196 yards and three TDs on 27 carries.

All-state running back Brennan Hayes finds a route. Hayes had 196 yards on 27 carries for three TDs in the 35-27 postseason victory over the Cyclones.

All-state running back Brennan Hayes finds a route. Hayes had 196 yards on 27 carries for three TDs in the 35-27 postseason victory over the Cyclones. (CNA photo by CHEYENNE ROCHE/)

Junior linebacker Lucas Travis said the defense was prepared for the rematch. “I thought we had the win in us,” he said. “We were stopping the run game. I think we hammered down on that for sure.”

On their first defensive stand, the Panthers held the Cyclones to 22 rushing yards on six attempts, forcing a turnover on downs after quarterback Will Arkfeld’s ball fell incomplete on fourth-and-5.

Leading the defense were Jack Walter and Austin Evans with 8.5 tackles. Walter had six solo and 0.5 tackles for loss. Max Chapman had three tackles for loss while Evans and Will Bolinger each had a sack.

Will Bolinger (No. 35) and Max Chapman (No. 99) sandwich Harlan running back Lukas Francis Friday in a 35-27 playoff victory over the Cyclones. Also getting in on the play are, from left, Milo Staver (No. 34); Lucas Travis (No. 37); Dillon Starlin (No. 10) and Jackson Kerr (No. 65).

Will Bolinger (No. 35) and Max Chapman (No. 99) sandwich Harlan running back Lukas Francis Friday in a 35-27 playoff victory over the Cyclones. Also getting in on the play are, from left, Milo Staver (No. 34); Lucas Travis (No. 37); Dillon Starlin (No. 10) and Jackson Kerr (No. 65). (CNA photo by CHEYENNE ROCHE/)

With good field position, Turner completed two 15-yard passes to junior wide receiver Josh Schaefer to get to the 17-yard line. From there, Hayes took it to the 11 before a trick play had backup quarterback Weston Trapp throwing a touchdown to Turner.

“We’ve been working at it for a couple weeks now,” Trapp said. “It was great, just rolling around, [Tyler] Riley tosses it to me, I catch it, lob it up to Cael, touchdown.”

Things were looking good as the Panthers had a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, but Harlan isn’t so easy to keep down.

After sequential incomplete passes set up a third-and-10 from their own 28-yard line, Arkfeld found Landen Kaufman for a 72-yard touchdown to make it a one-score game.

With less than two minutes left in the first quarter, the Panthers were determined to keep the game moving.

In one of his favorite plays of the game, senior wide receiver Brandon Briley caught a 35-yard pass from Turner to set up a 25-yard touchdown pass from Turner to Trapp.

The leading passer in Class 3A, Turner went 10-21 for 184 yards a touchdown and an interception in the matchup. The Panthers led 21-7 to start the second quarter.

Miscues

In Harlans’ ensuing drive, the Cyclones converted all three third downs, the last being a third-and-goal at the 1-yard line as Arkfeld took it in on a QB sneak.

“I thought we gave up the big plays in the first half,” Morrison said. “We got some stops and knocking off the two-time defending champs isn’t easy. The seniors have been through it as sophomores and juniors, so I’m just proud of our kids’ resilience throughout the game.”

The Panthers would face adversity in the next drive as Hayes lined up to take another direct snap, but a bad connection lost 13 yards on the play. Turner dropped back on second-and-23, but his pass was intercepted at the Panthers’ 27-yard line by Jozef Reisz.

“I think we just make some mental mistakes at time,” Creston offensive coordinator Garrison Carter said. “We took our foot off the gas, and maybe got a little complacent with some of the basics. We can’t do that going forward.”

Travis said there’s an extra determination taking the field after the Harlan defense shut down Creston’s offense. “Sometimes you’re a little more motivated to run in there and stomp them right after they stomp us,” he said.

Bolinger, a senior linebacker, said both sides take care of each other. “It’s the same as when we have a rough series on defense, they come out and pick us up,” he said. “If we don’t play as a team, it’s not going to happen. We showed that. You’ve got to believe and buy in.”

The defense came out strong, senior lineman Jackson Kerr getting pressure on Arkfeld to force an incompletion. Linebacker Milo Staver stopped Arkfeld after picking up three yards on second down. Evans had a sack on third down to set up fourth-and-9, but Arkfeld converted on a 24-yard pass to set up first-and-goal from the 3-yard line.

The Panthers put together a series of stops, Chapman and a host of defensive players keeping the Cyclones out of the end zone for three consecutive plays. On fourth-and-goal from the 1, Arkfeld was able to make it in and tie the game at 21 with two minutes remaining in the first half.

Creston put together a nine-play, 76-yard drive, Briley nearly falling just short of a touchdown on a 30-yard pass play. Hayes took it in from the 1-yard line to regain their lead 28-21 going into the half. Briley had five catches for 92 yards.

Creston's Brandon Briley comes down with a catch to set up first-and-goal at the 1 with less than a minute left in the first half. Briley had five catches for 92 yards in the matchup.

Creston’s Brandon Briley comes down with a catch to set up first-and-goal at the 1 with less than a minute left in the first half. Briley had five catches for 92 yards in the matchup. (CNA photo by CHEYENNE ROCHE/)

Slow down

Both defenses came out stronger in the second half, Harlan posting two three-and-outs and Creston with one on the first three drives of the third.

“Morrison said we struggled getting the quarterback contained in the first half,” Bolinger explained. “In the second half we did a really good job with that, playing together and making crucial stops.”

The Panthers finally gained some traction on their second drive, Hayes taking the snap on the 2-yard line to run it in for his third TD of the game.

“Football is like 180 micro-wars that happen over and over and over,” Carter said. “Regardless of the previous one, you’ve got to line up and play the next play. There are highs and lows, but try to stay neutral and play the next play.”

The two-score lead didn’t last long, Lukas Francis taking the ball 77 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the ensuing drive. A missed two-point conversion gave the Panthers a 35-27 lead heading into the fourth.

After the touchdown came another scoring drought, neither team able to find the end zone, including a missed 31-yard field goal by Hayes.

The Cyclones got the ball back with less than two-minutes left in the game, needing a touchdown and a 2-point conversion to send it to overtime.

On first, second and third down, Arkfeld’s passes fell incomplete, setting up a fourth-and-10, but the Cyclones converted with a 13-yard play. The Panthers forced another third down, but again, Harlan converted.

With 38 seconds remaining, and the game on the line, Staver got a hit on Arkfeld as he released a pass from midfield, the Panthers’ freshman lineman Tom Mikkelsen coming away with the game-winning interception.

Senior Milo Staver gets a hit on quarterback Will Arkfeld, causing the pass to fall short into the hands of freshman lineman Tom Mikkelsen in a game-winning interception.

Senior Milo Staver gets a hit on quarterback Will Arkfeld, causing the pass to fall short into the hands of freshman lineman Tom Mikkelsen in a game-winning interception. (Photo contributed by TERRY FREEMAN/)

“He’s a freshman, but he’s a pretty special player,” Morrison said. “He’s had a great season and he’s just done a tremendous job for us all year.”

Up Next

The Panthers advance to host Webster City Friday after the Lynx topped Nevada 27-7 to advance.

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Creston’s strong run defense will be a necessity against the Lynx who ran for 299 yards against the Cubs, led by senior Jaxon Cherry who logged 200 yards and three TDs.

“We definitely have more to come,” Travis said.

Stats

Creston 35, Harlan 27

Points by quarter

Cr 21 7 7 0 —35

Ha 7 14 6 0—27

SCORING SUMMARY

First Quarter

CR: Brennan Hayes 1 run (Hayes kick), 9:38

CR: Cael Turner 11 pass from Weston Trapp (Hayes kick), 3:02

HA: Landen Kaufman 72 pass from Will Arkfeld (Nolan Schwery kick), 1:56.

CR: Trapp 25 pass from Turner (Hayes kick), 0:34.

Second Quarter

HA: Arkfeld 1 run (Schwery kick), 7:31.

HA: Arkfeld 1 run (Schwery kick), 2:23.

CR: Hayes 1 run (Hayes kick), 0:17.

Third Quarter

CR: Hayes 2 run (Hayes kick), 4:10.

HA: Lukas Francis 77 run (missed kick).

Fourth Quarter

None.

—————

TEAM STATISTICS

Cr Ha

Rushes-yards 35-255 36-175

Passing 11-21-1 11-23-1

Passing yards 195 155

Total yards 450 330

Punts-avg 0-0 1-40

Return yards 4-44 5-71

Fumbles-lost 1-1 0-0

INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS

RUSHING — CR: Brennan Hayes 27-196, 3 TDs; Cael Turner 6-41; Weston Trapp 2-18. HA: Lukas Francis 19-146; 1 TD; Will Arkfeld 13-20, 2 TDs.

PASSING — CR: Turner 10-20-1 for 184 yards, 1 TD. Trapp 1-1-0 for 11 yards, 1 TD. HA: Arkfeld 11-23-1 for 155 yards, 1 TD.

RECEIVING — CR: Brandon Briley 5-92; Josh Schaefer 2-30; Trapp 3-62, 1 TD; Turner 1-11, 1 TD. HA: Landen Kaufman 3-89, 1 TD; Jozef Reisz 5-44.

PUNTS-AVG. — CR: None. HA: Nolan Schwery 1-40.

TACKLE LEADERS (total-solo) — CR: Jack Walter 8.5-6; ; Austin Evans 8.5-3; Will Bolinger 7.5-4; Max Chapman 6-3. HA: Jackson Bieker 8-8; Jozef Reisz 8-5.

INTERCEPTIONS — CR: Tom Mikkelsen 1. HA: Reisz 1.

FUMBLE RECOVERIES — CR: None. HA: Alex Heithoff 1.

TACKLES FOR LOSS — CR: Chapman 3; Evans 1.5; Bolinger 1. HA: Reisz 2; Hayden Soma 1; Brett Heese 1.


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