CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — All the ingredients were in the kettle. The upset was brewing.
In the first half, Council Bluffs St. Albert made an interception and turned it into a score. It dominated special teams, and therefore field position. And it played bend-but-don’t-break defense to head to the intermission tied 14-14.
But Iowa City Regina took control with its big-play passing game and opportunistic defense. Mark Ward passed for a Class 1-A championship game record 297 yards and the top-rated Regals picked off Tucker Culjat three times after the break to beat the No. 8 Falcons 35-14 for the title Friday at the UNI-Dome.
After consecutive Class 2-A titles, Regina (14-0) captured its third straight crown and extended its winning streak to 42 games, tied for sixth in state history.
“It’s a great victory over St. Albert today,” said sixth-year Regina coach Marv Cook, who improved to 74-5 (.937). “This is one of the best programs in Class 1-A football for the last decade or so. We’re just honored to be on the same field with them, and feel grateful to get the victory.”
Making its seventh championship appearance in 10 years, St. Albert closed at 12-2.
“Not enough gas in the tank. You come in against a great team, and they don’t win 42 in a row for nothing,” St. Albert coach Kevin Culjat said. “You knew you had to play flawless football, and I thought in the first half we played pretty flawless. We did exactly what we wanted to do. ... We came in at halftime tied and we felt real good about it.”
In the second half, Regina outgained the Falcons 183-37. The play that started St. Albert’s demise came with 5:35 left in the third quarter and the game still tied.
After Jake Lewis’ sack forced Regina into third-and-18 at its 35, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Ward heaved one down the right sideline to the 6-2, 180-pound Alex Balke for 46 yards. Jake Bendgen, at 5-8 and 152, had decent coverage, but Ward threw a perfect strike.
“It’s a big, tall, strong quarterback throwing to a big, tall, strong receiver,” Culjat said. “It wasn’t like we weren’t in position, he just made a great play.”
On the next play, Ward hit Riley Dixon on a screen pass that covered 19 yards for the touchdown and a 21-14 lead.
St. Albert elected to punt on fourth-and-2 at its 45. Regina marched 58 yards in five plays, ending with Nick Dolezal’s 32-yard field goal that pushed its lead to 24-14.
On the Falcons’ next offensive play, the ball came out of Tucker Culjat’s hand wobbling, and Fritz Wagner picked it, putting the Regals in business on the Falcon 28.
Dolezal’s 34-yard field goal extended Regina’s lead to 27-14 with 5:47 left, and Culjat was intercepted on St. Albert’s final two possessions.
In addition to Ward’s passing performance, Mike Donovan set a 1-A championship game record with 125 receiving yards, and tied the mark of seven receptions.
After a sputtering start, St. Albert found its footing and actually had the momentum for a good portion of the first half.
Donovan’s 1-yard run capped a 73-yard touchdown drive for Regina to start the game. The Regals then forced a three-and-out from the Falcons.
But consecutive pass breakups by John McGinn and Trae Tietsort led to a Regina punt and a 21-yard return by Cole Herr. Herr pounded in from the 3 to cap a nine-play, 42-yard drive, tying the game 7-7.
For the second straight game, Jimmy Hawk then came up with a big turnover. His interception and 23-yard return set the Falcons up at the Regina 14. Herr’s second 3-yard scoring run gave the Falcons a 14-7 lead at the 10:15 mark of the second quarter.
However, a botched coverage left Regina’s Matt Streb alone in the end zone, and Ward hit him for a 40-yard score, making it 14-14 with 2:50 left in the half.
“At halftime, we knew we could play with them,” Herr said. “We were pretty pumped up. It was the second half that got us. We just didn’t come out as well as we did in the first half. And they’re a very good team, so credit to them.”
Kevin Culjat, now 51-4 (.927) in four years at the helm, said he would leave the UNI-Dome with great admiration for his players.
“It’s one of the guttier performances I’ve seen out of a team,” he said. “Our top 15 guys just laid it on the line, week after week after week. Especially in this playoff grind, they’ve played hurt, they’ve played dinged.
“They’ve done everything we’ve asked of them. They played with absolute intensity and desire today. We just got beat by a better team.”
Iowa City Regina (14-0) ................. 7 7 7 14—35
At CB St. Albert (12-2) ................. 7 7 0 0—14
ICR: Mike Donovan 1 run (Nick Dolezal kick)
SA: Cole Herr 3 run (Jon Meyerring kick)
SA: Herr 3 run (Meyerring kick)
ICR: Matt Streb 40 pass from Mark Ward (Dolezal kick)
ICR: Riley Dixon 19 pass from Ward (Dolezal kick)
ICR: FG Dolezal 32
ICR: FG Dolezal 34
ICR: Donovan 5 run (Mike Sehl pass from Ward)
RUSHING: ICR, Riley Dixon 16-56, Mike Donovan 9-22, Mark Ward 7-12, team 2-(-4). SA, Tucker Culjat 15-75, Cole Herr 14-43, Isaac Finn 2-2, Jacob Bendgen 2-1.
PASSING: ICR, Mark Ward 17-25-1, 297 yards, 2 TDs. SA, Tucker Culjat 3-6-3, 40 yards.
RECEIVING: ICR, Mike Donovan 7-125, Alex Balke 5-71, Riley Dixon 2-53, Matt Streb 2-46. SA, Eric Johnson 1-34, Isaac Finn 1-3, Cole McBride 1-3.
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