Ballard football team puts together surprising run in 2021: Bombers return to the playoffs
After losing most of its playmakers and linemen from last year's 9-2 team the Ballard football team knew there was going to be an adjustment period in 2021.
The Bombers started the season slow, but they didn't panic. By the end of the season they were competing in the playoffs for the second year in a row, finishing 5-5 overall and placing third in a loaded Class 3A District 2 with a 3-2 district record.
"We knew coming into this season that we were going to be very green," Ballard co-head coach Kyle Howard said. "We had five returning starters and a lot of new faces. That inexperience cost us some early, but we grew and got better each week, and earned a playoff spot."
Ballard was overwhelmed by eventual 4A playoff qualifiers Bondurant-Farrar and Adel-Desoto-Minburn in its first two games. The Bombers fell by scores of 47-14 and 31-14.
But in Week 3 the Bombers showed signs of becoming a competitive program in their first true home game in 700 days due to the damage caused by last year's derecho storm. They pounded Boone, 26-0, and followed that up with a decisive 48-0 home victory over Atlantic.
Humboldt and Nevada provided brief roadblocks on Ballard's comeback trail.
The Bombers went to Humboldt Sept. 24 and were shut out by the eventual 3A District 2 champions, 40-0. The next week they hosted a Nevada team that ended the regular season ranked sixth in 3A and suffered their first loss to the Cubs since 1999, 34-13.
"We played a very challenging schedule," Howard said. "Of our 10 opponents, six were playoff teams. According to Varsity Bound, we played the fifth toughest schedule in 3A."
But that didn't deter Ballard.
The Bombers rebounded from the Nevada game to win an absolute thriller over old rival North Polk Oct. 8 in Huxley. They rallied with 22 points in the fourth quarter for a dramatic 43-42 comeback victory.
"The North Polk win was huge for our kids and program," Howard said. "We showed a lot of resiliency that night, and that win helped fuel us the rest of the season."
The next week was even more impressive. The Bombers traveled to Algona and turned in their most complete performance of the year to stun the No. 10 Bulldogs, 49-21.
Ballard wrapped up the regular season by shutting out Gilbert on the road, 49-0. That sent the Bombers back into the playoffs.
"It always feels good to make the playoffs," Howard said. "We have great kids and we’re so proud of how they finished the season."
The victory over Gilbert earned Ballard a date with No. 1 Harlan in the first round of the 3A playoffs. The Bombers were no match for the Cyclones, falling 45-0 to end the season.
For the season Ballard averaged 25.6 points and 304.5 yards per game. The Bombers gave up averages of 26 points and 294.4 yards.
Sophomore tailback Eli Rouse emerged as the top weapon for Ballard during the season.
With starting quarterback Ashton Hermann lost for the season during the Nevada game, Rouse came on like a wrecking ball over the final five games. He finished with 869 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns on 6.7 yards per carry and also had a touchdown reception and 33 yards passing.
Junior Gabe Christensen was the most consistent running back for Ballard during the season. Christensen rushed for 772 yards and six touchdowns on 5.5 yards per carry and he added one touchdown receiving.
When he was healthy Hermann turned heads in his first year at quarterback.
Taking over for three-year starter Connor Drew, Hermann completed 75 of 111 passes for 833 yards and nine touchdowns with five interceptions. He also ran for 386 yards and four touchdowns on 7.1 yards a pop.
Jayden Cattell and Jacob Ihle were the top Bomber receivers. Cattell caught 21 passes for 347 yards and four touchdowns and Ihle made 25 grabs for 318 yards and five scores.
Bryce Haessig added 19 catches for 119 yards, Chance Lande nine grabs for 74 yards and Caden Miller six for 48.
A young Ballard offensive line played a big part in the Bombers' success late in the season.
Starting offensive tackle Kale Krogh, an Iowa recruit, was a dominant force when 100 %, but he was injured for a good portion of the season. Caleb Larsen was an all-district performer as the most consistent Bomber lineman all season.
Defensive end Nick Wacha anchored Ballard on defense. He was so dominant that in a league stacked with talent he was named the district's Defensive MVP.
Wacha recorded 59.5 tackles, including 52 solo stops, 13 tackles behind the line and three sacks. He also returned a fumble for a touchdown.
Linebacker Jayden Swain led Ballard in tackles with 70.5. He also had seven tackles for loss and a fumble recovery.
Ihle made 60 tackles, Blake Stover had 46.5 stops with eight tackles for loss, two fumble recoveries and an interception and Colby Calvert tallied 25.5 tackles, three interceptions and a fumble recovery. Lande finished with 37.5 tackles and two interceptions, Blake Fleischmann 40 tackles, Jakson Fleischmann 20 tackles and an interception, Christensen 27 tackles and a fumble recovery and Jack Nelson 29.5 stops.
Trevor Kalsen chipped in 21 tackles, Thomas Harrison 15, Krogh 13, Cattell and Rouse 11 apiece and Jaren Njos 10. Cattell also returned a fumble for a touchdown and Kalsem, Grant Anderson and Beau Warg each recovered one fumble.
Connor Utley made 24 of 30 extra points, Warg averaged 31.9 yards on 31 punts and Rouse averaged 24.3 yards on 21 kick returns with one touchdown for Ballard on special teams.
Next season Ballard will again need to replace some big playmakers in Krogh, Hermann, Wacha, Ihle, Cattell and others.
"Our seniors not only provide a lot of big plays on the field, but also a lot of leadership off the field," Howard said. "They will be hard to replace."
But the Bombers are ready to put the work in to get back to the playoffs for a third year in a row in 2022.
"We know we are going to have a very tough schedule again next season," Howard said. "We are very excited about the players we have coming back, but we know we have a lot of work to do before next season if we want to continue to be a playoff team."