After not catching any breaks in 2017, the North Polk football team entered the 2018 season on a mission.
The Comets went 2-7 a year ago, losing three games in overtime. They were determined not to experience that constant heartache again in 2018.
“We had so much heartbreak the previous season,” North Polk head football coach Evan Groepper said. “Our team worked really hard for 12 months to get the program back on the winning side.”
That extra focus and effort paid off in the end.
North Polk posted a winning 5-4 record and went 2-3 in a tough Class 3A District 8. The Comets won all three games they played in that were decided by a touchdown or less.
“It was a really rewarding season for us,” Groepper said. “So many of our players had to sacrifice through injury or playing in positions that weren’t ideal to give the team the best shot to win. The district was highly competitive, which made it fun to prepare and play in. It was one of the only districts where every team could beat all of the other teams on a given night.”
North Polk went 3-1 to start the season against non-district competition.
The Comets opened the season winning a 49-35 slugfest on the road over an explosive Nevada team. They followed that up by handing former district rival Grinnell a 39-14 beating in their home opener to avenge one of their overtime losses from a year ago.
Winterset knocked off North Polk in Week 3, 32-20, at Winterset, but North Polk came back to win an 8-6 defensive battle at Perry to get payback for another overtime setback from last year.
“As the year went on, we really started to figure out our schemes on both sides of the ball and (were) executing at a high level,” Groepper said. “It was fun to watch our players grow with confidence as the year went on.”
North Polk immediately ran into tough competition to start district play.
The Comets went up against eventual district runner-up Bondurant-Farrar at home and champion Norwalk on the road in their first two district game. North Polk suffered a 47-19 loss to Bondurant-Farrar and a 36-3 setback at Norwalk.
The two losses eliminated North Polk from playoff contention. But the Comets still had plenty to play for.
On Oct. 5, North Polk earned its first district victory with a 22-16 win over Gilbert at home. The Comets came up short against a surging Carlisle team the following week, but they gave the Wildcats a good fight before going down by a 35-21 score.
The season came to a close Oct. 19 against Highway 69 rival Ballard at Huxley. The renewal of the rivalry game was an instant classic, with North Polk winning an exciting 30-26 affair to end the season on a high note.
“We had a bundle of injuries right in the middle of the season that made it challenging for us,” Groepper said. “But our team pushed on and was able to finish by winning two of the last three.”
The win over Ballard especially stood out.
“The final hurdle will definitely be memorable,” Groepper said. “We fumbled with the lead on the last play before we could kneel the ball. (Then) our guys buckling back down and playing great situational defense to get one final stop and find a way to win.”
North Polk averaged 23.4 points and 320.1 yards per game on offense for the season, after only averaging 292 yards last year. The Comets displayed great balance, averaging 167.3 rushing and 152.8 passing yards per game.
Senior quarterback Colten Parkins completed 100 of 178 passes for 1,368 yards and 13 touchdowns with only five interceptions. Parkins also ran for 489 yards and six touchdowns, averaging 4.4 yards per carry.
“Colten Parkins had a great year at quarterback,” Groepper said. “His ability to make all the decisions in our offense, play at the tempo we wanted to play at, run the ball and throw with a high completion percentage and a low interception rate was huge in our offensive improvement.”
Quinten Sommers was Parkins’ top target at receiver. Sommers caught 46 passes for 660 yards and seven touchdowns in his senior year.
“Quentin Sommers had a really good season and became the big play threat that we were hoping for,” Groepper said.
Ryan Fausch also had a big season at receiver. Fausch made 23 receptions for 288 yards and three touchdowns.
Caleb Lomica made eight catches for 140 yards and three touchdowns at tight end and receiver Trevor Mathis had eight grabs for 125 yards. Running backs Logan Engebretson and Thomas Jones combined to make 10 catches for 101 yards, Dylan Meinerts tallied three for 29, Colin Swygman had two for 28 and Jeff Lamp added one four-yard touchdown grab.
With Lamp injured for a portion of the season, Engebretson stepped up as the top rusher for North Polk. He picked up 543 yards and four touchdowns on 108 carries.
“Jeff Lamp was another guy that brought a physical presence to our team,” Groepper said. “You could really see the difference in our team when Jeff was able to play.”
Jones ran for 279 yards and three touchdowns on 4.1 yards per carry and Lamp picked up 161 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 5.0 yards per tote. J.D. Ellefson chipped in 30 yards rushing.
The Comet offensive line played a big part in the team’s ability to move the ball effectively, both on the ground and through the air.
“Eddy Burt, Davis Foughty, Chase Bockenstedt and Brennan Gering had really solid years and helped us really improve in the trenches,” Groepper said.
On defense, North Polk gave up 27.4 points and 364 yards per game. The Comets forced 11 turnovers and totaled 12 sacks on the season.
Lomica was a force at linebacker in his senior year as the anchor of the Comet defense. He led the team in tackles with 82, and added 8.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
“Caleb Lomica brought an attitude to our defense — his ability to get to the ball and make tackles,” Groepper said. “The thing that was most impressive with him was how hard he worked during the week to get his injuries under control so he could play effectively on Fridays.”
Junior Mark Cox was the key disruptive force on the defensive line for North Polk. Cox finished with 36.5 tackles, 10.5 stops behind the line and 4.5 sacks.
Fausch and Parkins led North Polk in the secondary.
Fausch ended up with 40.5 tackles, three interceptions and one fumble recovery. Parkins recorded 35.5 tackles, one interception and one fumble recovery.
Lamp delivered 42 tackles and one fumble recovery, Jones 30.5 tackles and six tackles for loss, Engebretson 30.5 stops and Meiners 29.5 tackles and seven stops behind the line for North Polk defensively. Burt made 21 tackles and a sack, Sommers 16 tackles and an interception and Michael Williams 13.5 tackles, two sacks and a fumble recovery.
Swygman chipped in 9.5 tackles, Mathis 5.5 stops plus two interceptions — returning one for a touchdown — and Jacob Elliott five tackles.
On special teams, Swygman provided North Polk with one of the best weapons in the district.
Swygman converted 4 of 5 field goal attempts with an impressive long of 45 yards. He also converted 17 of 19 extra points and had 23 touchbacks on 43 kickoffs.
“Colin Swygman had a great season kicking the ball and was such a huge asset for our kickoff team,” Groepper said.
Sommers and Lamp split the punting duties. Sommers averaged 34.1 yards on 19 punts and Lamp 30.6 on 14.
Sommers also averaged 21.1 yards per kick return and 13.0 on punt returns. Fausch averaged 17.5 yards on 14 kick returns.
North Polk graduates a talented class. But the Comets still have the potential to make a run at another winning season in 2019.
“We will bring a good amount of experience back, but lose some very good players,” Groepper said. “We will need to build on the legacy that this group has left and then build our depth with our upperclassman to continue to progress as a program.”