WILTON, Iowa – Coach Ryan Hetzler and his Wilton football team have had the playoffs on their minds ever since a heartbreaking seven-point loss to Sigourney-Keota ended the Beavers postseason dreams 12 months ago.
Wilton was able to flip the script this time around as junior quarterback Jerome Mays rushed for the game-winning touchdown with under 20 seconds remaining to clinch a 36-30 win over Sigourney-Koeta, and most importantly, one of the sixteen spots in the Class 1A playoffs.
“It was a big step in the right direction for our program to win a game of that magnitude,” Hetzler said. “I think our team is right where we need to be going into the playoffs and we’re starting to play our best football at the right time.”
The reward for Wilton (8-1) is a trip to No. 7 Bellevue (8-1) for its the first playoff appearance since 2015. The Beavers will have to match their second half performance last week, which Hetzler called their "toughest football" of the season, for four quarters.
"Sometimes you play a big game and come out flat the next game because there's an expectation you're going to play like you did last week," Hetzler said. "We're going to need four quarters of that (play), especially on the road."
And Hetzler knows that must continue if his team hopes take the next step and leave Bellevue with its first postseason win since 2013.
The Comets boast one of the top offenses in all of Class 1A, as they rank third in the state in total yards with 3,887 and have a case for the most balanced attack in the state.
Bellevue senior quarterback Cade Daugherty leads Class 1A in both passing yards (2,039) and passing touchdowns (24), while junior receiver Trey Daugherty leads Class 1A with 812 yards receiving. Junior running back Hunter Clasen’s 23 rushing touchdowns are the most in Class 1A and he's rushed for 1,354 yards, fifth most in Class 1A.
“They have some really phenomenal athletes,” Hetzler said. “(They have) great athletes across the board and an extremely explosive offense.”
Led by junior Cory Anderson, the Beavers boast one of the state’s best secondaries. Anderson has seven interceptions on the season and the Beavers’ 15 interceptions are second most in Class 1A. Wilton held Sigourney-Keota, the top offense in Class 1A, to 30 points after it scored 48 or more in each of the previous four weeks.
Although Wilton’s secondary certainly caught Bellevue coach Chet Knake’s attention, he’s most concerned about what one member of that unit does on the other side of the ball.
“Their quarterback is a stud, he’s a game changer,” Knake said. “He’s a nightmare to game plan against because he makes so many people miss."
Mays’ 2,247 total yards rank third in Class 1A but are just 30 behind Cade Daugherty's 2,277. The Wilton junior has rushed for 962 yards, passed for 1,285 yards and scored 31 touchdowns, the most of anyone in Class 1A. Most importantly, Hetzler believes he's peaking at the right time.
“Since that Regina game I think he’s learned a lot about what he’s able to do to keep plays alive,” Hetzler said. “Last week I think we saw the best Jerome we’ve seen to date.”
The one chink in Mays’ armor continues to be turnovers, as the junior has thrown 12 interceptions this season. Most of those have come when he’s forced to make throws from the pocket, and Hetzler expects Bellevue to do everything in its power to make Mays do just that Friday night.
Hetzler knows the Comets have a plenty capable defense, as they've held opponents to single digits four times this season and only allowed 20 or more points on three occasions.
“We have to keep him in the pocket and get people in his face,” Knake said. “That sounds very easy, but it’s very tough to do. We’re going to try and corral him the best we can to make him a pocket passer with some pressure."
Certainly, playoff football has a different feel, one most of Hetzler's players haven't experienced. But he expects his team will respond well, which will be crucial to against the explosive Comets.
“A lot of things are going to happen,” Hetzler said. “Their defense and offense are good, so a big play could happen and it’s important we respond the way we need to and not lose our cool. The kids are excited and ready to go.”