There are few words to describe the thrill of witnessing an upset win. It’s a rare treat, something you see maybe once or twice in your lifetime. Last night, I got to see one.
I also saw a town come alive.
Lowly Marion, coming off a dismal 0-9 season in 2015, pulled off arguably the biggest upset in Iowa High School football this season.
They faced Clear Creek Amana (CCA), previously-unbeaten, and ranked #6 in Class 3A. CCA came to town boasting after a 30-14 pasting of perennial favorite West Delaware the week before. It was almost a foregone conclusion that they would win the game.
Marion football had suffered through an inglorious dry spell of losing seasons. They had been the laughing stock of 3A football in Eastern Iowa. Every school wanted to play Marion. Over time, there had developed an epidemic of negativity among the coaching staff, harsh words, anger and frustration. Football was no longer fun in Marion.
In the off season, Marion High School made some moves. They hired an entirely new group of coaches, paying special attention to positivity and character. Their selectiveness paid off. Tim Lovell immediately got to work repairing the damage and building confidence and courage into the hearts of his players. The players felt it. The parents saw it. Tim Lovell sparked life into Marion football. Last night, he fanned it into flame and lit a fire in the community.
When the teams took the field, the first thing I noticed was how small the Marion players looked compared with their opponents. The middle linebacker/center, Nate Holub, is 5’9”. My friend’s son, Jacob Maloney, also a linebacker, is 5’9”. Alex Whalen, the cornerback/ wide receiver/placekicker/punt returner, is maybe 5’9” on his tiptoes.
But looks can be deceiving. These guys are made of iron. Holub played every snap, making tackles and gutting it out on every play. Maloney was the cheerleader, always firing the guys up. After watching his gutsy tenacity, I now call Whalen “the Badger”. He hits hard and punishes runners with quickness and aggression. These guys are fun to watch.
CCA got the ball first, and Marion stopped them. After a punt, Marion drove 80 yards, mixing up the pass and run, and surprised everyone in the stadium by striking paydirt first. Marion led 7-0.
But CCA was far from worried. They were confident, poised.
CCA is a run-happy team. They pounded it out on the ground, calling run after run. Marion’s defense was on the field a lot in that first half. They had huge stops, including one on fourth-and-short deep in their own territory. I kept thinking, “Marion is wearing down.” But somehow, incredibly, they hung in there.
On defense, CCA brought the heat often, blitzing, packing the middle, stuffing Marion’s running game and creating chaos for their young, sophomore quarterback, Trevor Paulsen. At one point in the first half, they backed Marion to their 1-yard line. Somehow, Marion was able to punt out of that horrible situation.
But CCA was winning the battle of field position. They soon got the ball back in Marion territory. Marion committed a costly offsides penalty giving CCA a first down. CCA took advantage and punched it in after a series of hard-fought runs near the end of the first half. It was 7-7 at halftime.
The second half was a defensive struggle. There were heroics on both sides, as drives were thwarted time and time again. I kept looking for the Marion guys to wear down, give up huge runs. But they held firm. I was almost expecting our young QB, Paulsen to make a costly mistake and throw an interception or fumble. He wasn’t perfect but he kept his cool. The second half was scoreless and the game went into overtime, still 7-7.
Marion won the coin toss and elected to let CCA go first. CCA got three yards on a run, five more on a quick-out pass, and scored on a power run up the middle. Just like that, the favored team was up, 14-7, and things looked grim for Marion. After all that hard work, defeat once again stared them in the face.
With poise and tenacity, the Marion offense powered the ball forward with quick runs. On a counter from about the 6-yard line, running back Owen Carstensen found a hole and scampered in for the TD.
Marion was down, 14-13. My friend Mark was hoping for a PAT to tie it. But the crowd sensed an unusual surge of confidence and courage coming from the sideline. Sure enough, the coach kept his offense on the field. They were going for two!
We all held our breath as Paulsen took the snap. Instead of handing off, he slipped to the side, looking to pass. Passing had not gone well for us all night. Paulsen had many incomplete passes, lots of sacks for big losses, some near interceptions. I groaned silently. He cocked his arm, aimed, and fired to the back of the end zone. I couldn’t really see who he was throwing to. The ball floated across the goal line, was tipped up by a CCA defender. I panicked for a brief moment…thought, it’s over. Nice try, Marion.
Then I saw him. Cutting free in the back of the end zone was Grant Meth, Marion’s tall and lanky Tight End. He was wide open, and the tipped ball floated lightly towards him. He looked up, held up his hands, and neatly and cleanly made the catch.
We stopped yelling and held our breath…waited…no flags. The referee paused for a second, then…raised both hands high.
It took about a split second to realize what had just happened. Then the crowd and the Marion sideline erupted. Helmets went flying. Hands raised high. Gutsy, little Marion had just beaten a powerhouse.
As part of a long standing tradition at Marion High School, students crowd under the north end goal posts and run to meet the players following the game. This night, the entire fan section–parents, former students, and random onlookers like me–joined them. I walked around, patting the shoulder pads of a few of the kids I knew. I noticed a crowd gathering at midfield, kneeling. I strolled over and took a knee myself. The Head Coach was speaking. Overcome with emotion, he talked of healing for the community. This was something Marion needed badly. He was overwhelmed with the outpouring of support, proud of his team’s courage.
It was an amazing experience to personally witness such a huge upset, to see a team so accustomed to losing pull out a big “W”. But even more, it was amazing to see a town rally behind their new coach, and their winning team. Thanks, Coach Lovell. I don’t even know you, but that was pretty cool.