WILTON, Iowa — All it took was two hours two Fridays ago for the Wilton football team to go from riding the high of an undefeated season to facing a must-win situation.
So it goes in the chase for the playoffs in high school football.
Wilton entered its matchup with Regina 5-0 and knocking on the doorstep of a top-10 ranking in Class 1A. But the Regals, currently ranked No. 4 in Class 1A, turned that dream into a nightmare by dismantling the Beavers, 49-7.
Every coach and player in the program was disgusted with the team’s performance, but in order to keep pace with the other teams in Class 1A District 7, Wilton knew it had to bounce back against a good Wapello team. Thanks to junior Jerome Mays, whatever anxiety still remained from the previous week quickly vanished, as the junior quarterback gained 271 total yards and scored four total touchdowns as Wilton cruised to a crucial 38-13 win.
“We needed to move past that loss, get back on track and show the rest of the district that we’re still a dominant team,” Mays said. “They probably had some questions in their mind about us after the Regina game.”
Certainly, last Friday’s performance by Mays wasn’t anything new to those who have followed Wilton closely this season. The junior is having one of the best seasons in the entire state, as his 1,712 total yards rank 21st in the state and third in Class 1A, and his 21 touchdowns are also third in Class 1A.
“He’s stepped up even more and gone further than we ever expected him to at this point,” coach Ryan Hetzler said. “He’s really taken over and taken charge of his offense.”
Remarkably, Mays has only been playing quarterback since his freshman season when he made the switch from running back. That’s certainly come in handy this season with Trey Brisker and Collin McCrabb, who were the first and second string running backs, both missing time with injuries. Mays has rushed for a team-high 693 yards and 11 touchdowns on 114 carries, and a good portion of those have been designed running plays.
“What makes our offense tough to stop is you have to game plan for the quarterback run,” Hetzler said. “I would say 70 percent of our plays are read option plays, so even we don’t know on the sideline who has the ball until he pulls it or gives it.”
Even so, Mays has still proven to be dangerous improvising in the passing game, and he credits his teammates for occupying the defense’s attention. But it’s also partially due to his favorite player to watch on Saturday’s, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield. Hetzler said he tells every player on the team to pick a player to watch on television, and he’s even told Mays that he reminds him of Mayfield with the way he extends plays.
It’s been a huge help in the passing game, too, as Mays has thrown for 1,019 yards and 10 touchdowns this season.
“In high school that’s kind of hard for defenses to play against,” Mays said. “I try to play like (Mayfield) does. Some of my bigger runs have been off scrambles and making something out of nothing.”
The only down side to Mays’ season to date has been the 11 interceptions he’s thrown, which Hetzler admits is more than he anticipated from his quarterback. But Hetzler has never lost faith in his quarterback because Mays is “such an explosive player.”
Wilton (6-1, 4-1) will need its quarterback to continue playing at a high level to avoid the same fate as last year.
As long as Wilton is able to get past a 1-7 Van Buren team on Friday, it will set up a matchup with Sigourney-Keota (4-3, 4-1) in the season finale that will likely be for the final playoff spot. In the exact same scenario last season, Sigourney-Keota ended Wilton’s season with a 35-28 win. Mays rushed for 141 yards and two touchdowns, but he was just 2 of 10 for 95 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
The junior knows he’s better than a year ago, and he’s determined to prove it this time around.
“I think maybe we’re a little more focused this year because of what happened last year,” Mays said. “That’s not a feeling we want to have again, we’re more driven to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”