The 2017 season saw the Ballard football team display tremendous character in overcoming multiple early roadblocks to post a winning record and finish just one point shy of making the state playoffs.
Ballard had to forfeit a victory and deal with the loss of all-state tailback Hunter Wright early in the season. The Bombers also battled through a tough Class 3A District 2 schedule that featured the No. 2 team in 3A — Dallas Center-Grimes — and last year’s 3A state runner-up Webster City early in the schedule.
The end result saw Ballard only pick up one official victory in its first five games. But The Bombers didn’t panic.
They found ways to replace Wright’s production, thanks in large part to a strong offensive line. A young Ballard defense also started to gel and perform at a high level in the second half of the season.
With everything coming together, Ballard closed out the season on a four-game winning streak that included a rout of a top-10 Boone team on its home field. The Bombers finished 5-4 overall and took third in 3A District 2 with a 5-2 mark.
“We faced a lot of adversity early in the year — we fought through it and became a really good team,” Ballard head football coach Al Christian said. “We grew as a team. We realized that even if things happen to you that you have no control over, that you need to stay the course and believe.”
The season began with Ballard falling to eventual 3A state qualifier Carlisle, 43-28, at Carlisle. The Bombers then whipped Adel-Desoto-Minburn, 43-7, at home, but that was the game Ballard had to forfeit after playing an ineligible player.
District play opened with Ballard bouncing back strong from having been dealt a forfeit loss. The Bombers whipped up on Perry by a 41-17 score at Perry.
The following week Ballard went up against a DCG team that had knocked off three-time defending 3A state champion Pella in non-district action. To make matters even more difficult, Wright moved to Ankeny, leaving Ballard with a huge void in the backfield heading into the game.
DCG handed Ballard a tough 40-7 setback on its home turf. Things didn’t get much easier the following week as the Bombers had to go on the road to face Webster City.
But with another week to regroup and figure things out, Ballard came out and performed at a much higher level versus the Lynx. The Bombers hung tough against the No. 6 team in 3A, falling by a 37-27 margin.
Ballard capitalized on the momentum gained from playing well against Webster City by turning in the most explosive scoring night in program history the following week. Ballard set the school record for points in a game against Iowa Falls-Alden on homecoming night Sept. 29, rolling to an impressive 71-14 victory.
The next week Ballard was even more impressive.
The Bombers traveled to Boone to face an unbeaten and seventh-ranked Toreador squad. That unblemished record was no more for Boone after the game as Ballard stunned the Toreadors by a 28-7 margin.
“We enjoyed beating a good, undefeated and ranked Boone team on a rainy night on their field,” Christian said.
On Oct. 13 Ballard hosted Gilbert on senior night. The Bombers gave up a couple big-play touchdowns in the first half, but settled down to decimate the Tigers in the second half, pulling off a 46-17 victory.
The season ended with Ballard facing a one-win Greene County team. The Bombers jumped all over the Rams in the first half and coasted to a 49-14 victory.
The tremendous four-game winning streak to close out the season placed Ballard third in 3A District 2 behind DCG (7-0) and Webster City (6-1). But the Bombers played a such a high level down the stretch that they were in position to qualify for the playoffs as one of two at-large contenders in 3A.
Ballard’s final point differential average according to the Iowa High School Athletic Association was 8.29. That left the Bombers third in the race for the two at-large 3A playoff spots, finishing just one point shy of qualifying after coming in behind Oskaloosa’s point-differential average of 8.43.
“Finishing with four straight wins and almost making the playoffs was our biggest highlight,” Christian said. “(We had) a great group of young men that all the coaches really enjoyed coaching.”
Despite losing Wright, the Ballard offense ended up outperforming last year’s unit. The Bombers averaged 37.8 points and 414.8 yards per game compared to last year’s respective averages of 32.8 and 406.9.
“Our biggest strength was our diversity on offense,” Christian said. “We could run it and throw it. We had seven guys the defense had to account for on every play.”
It all started up front for Ballard.
Led by seniors Cody Knutson and Colin Anderson, the Ballard offensive line paved the way for 302.6 rushing yards per game on an impressive average of 6.8 yards per carry. The Bomber line also did a terrific job protecting quarterback Isaac Schafbuch.
Schafbuch had a breakout year as a dual-threat quarterback.
In his first season as the starting signal caller, Schafbuch completed 57.1 percent of his passes for 1,010 yards with nine touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He also was the team’s second-leading rusher, picking up 651 yards and 12 touchdowns on 7.8 yards per carry.
Junior Skyler Noftsger filled in admirably for Wright at tailback.
Noftsger rushed for a team-high 852 yards on 6.8 yards per carry and picked up 10 rushing touchdowns. He also caught eight passes for 78 yards.
Senior fullback Gavin Hobbs ran for 358 yards and six touchdowns and added three catches for 21 yards. Junior Blake Henga stepped up in the second half of the season to run for 156 yards and two touchdowns on just 14 carries, and he added 117 kickoff return and 20 punt return yards.
Junior Aaron Kinshaw added 41 yards and one touchdown rushing on three carries and freshman Connor Drew ran for 23 yards on six attempts.
Junior Reece Huen was Ballard’s top all-purpose threat. Huen led the team in receiving and was the third-leading rusher and top return man.
Huen caught 22 passes for 358 yards and two touchdowns and he ran for 462 yards and five touchdowns on 8.0 yards per carry. He returned five punts for 50 yards and six kickoffs for 97 yards.
Junior Kegan Odden was Ballard’s other top receiving threat. Odden caught 19 passes for 339 yards and five touchdowns.
Jack Luster added two grabs for 54 yards and one touchdown and Gannon Manfull six catches for 46 yards.
On defense, Ballard allowed 21.8 points and 307.9 yards per game. The Bombers allowed 158.8 yards rushing and 149.1 passing per game and they forced 11 turnovers and scored three defensive touchdowns.
“Our defense had nine new faces to start the year,” Christian said. “It took us awhile to become the solid unit we were at the end of the year.”
Senior defensive linemen Ben Lee and Josh DeTar anchored Ballard on defense.
Lee led the team with 81.5 tackles and two fumble recoveries. He also returned an interception for a touchdown and blocked a punt.
DeTar finished with 65.5 tackles. He had 60 solo stops and was constantly in the defensive backfield.
Justice Sullivan had a big freshman year at linebacker for Ballard. Sullivan recorded 64.5 tackles in his first season of varsity competition.
Ben Hokel ended up with 51 tackles and a fumble recovery and Sam Andrews made 44 stops for the Bombers. Henga returned two interceptions for touchdowns and tallied 33.5 tackles and Schafbuch finished with eight tackles, two interceptions and a fumble recovery.
Joe Hofbauer chipped in 32 tackles, a blocked punt and a fumble recovery and Manfull 31.5 stops plus an interception. Blake Hughes made 16 tackles, Brooks Fleischmann 12.5 and Dylan Hockey 10.
Brendan Vincent made 33 of 44 extra points and a 30-yard field goal during the season as the team’s place kicker. Drew handled the punting duties, punting 25 times for an average of 33.0 yards.
Next season, Ballard must find a way to replace several top linemen on both sides of the ball. But the Bombers return most of their top skill players, giving them potential for big things in 2018.
“We only have 14 seniors, but it’s a group that finished with us and will always be remembered for their contributions to this program,” Christian said. “We’re excited for next year already.”