CEDAR FALLS — Harlan Football was a mainstay in the Iowa High School State Tournament for Class 3A and came into Friday’s game against Mount Vernon as the reigning champion.
With a roster with an Iowa commit at Aidan Hall and one of the most prolific quarterbacks the state has ever seen in Teagon Kasperbauer, the Cyclones were expected to charge past the Mustangs to capture their 14th state title.
That was not the case. Not at all.
Harlan won back-to-back state titles, but it took a fourth-quarter comeback to beat Mount Vernon 30-23, and the Mustangs didn’t take it easy.
It started with a quarterback fight. Joining Harlan is Kasperbauer, a player who finished his high school career with two state championships, the fifth most passing yards and the second most passing touchdowns in 11-player history. Kasperbauer finished the title game with 220 yards and three touchdowns.
The win cemented his place in Iowa high school football history.
“I assume there are definitely great people up there,” said Kasperbauer about his records. “It’s a pretty awesome feeling, but honestly I’m glad we’re ahead. That’s all that counts.”
On the Mount Vernon side, they had to do without quarterback Joey Rhomberg. Instead, it was running back Henry Ryan who took over behind the center. He had 64 passing yards and a passing touchdown, and 29 rushing yards and a touchdown on the ground.
“What a feat, huh?” Mustangs coach Lance Pedersen said after the game. “Having a kid that went off running back and we made him quarterback in five days and he almost won a state title for us. I’m just very proud of Henry. He’s a competitor, he’s a fighter and I knew he was going to give us everything and he did.”
It was a duel between the offense with the highest scoring in 3A (Harlan, 49.2 ppg) and the defense, which allowed the fewest points (Mount Vernon, 5.4 ppg). That duel did not disappoint, with Harlan picking up the most points from a Mount Vernon opponent and the Mustangs scoring the third most points against the Cyclones all season.
Let’s talk about the defense of Mount Vernon for a moment.
Kasperbauer had thrown three interceptions all season when he came into Friday’s game. The Mustangs beat him twice in the championship, and the Mount Vernon defense recovered two of Harlan’s three fumbles. In any other game, that’s a winning defensive performance.
“One of the things we ask for is a championship effort and we felt that was the case tonight,” said Pedersen. “We just couldn’t do it. When you go into a league game, the other team is obviously very good and they want to win too. I was just so proud of our defense to keep us in the game as much as possible.”
There was some pregame jitter that both teams had to work out. Mount Vernon reached his own 34-yard line on the first drive but had to punt. Harlan’s first drive ended in a fumble on the first game. The Mustangs got the ball back and initially the Harlan defense reinforced.
Mount Vernon lost four yards on the first pull of the second drive and followed with two incomplete passes. In fourth place, however, Jensen Meeker caught a 32-yard pass from Henry Ryan to score the evening’s first points. However, Harlan stopped the goal there when Matthew Sorfonden blocked the extra point.
On the next drive, the Cyclones streaked for 84 yards in six games, capped by a touchdown by Aidan Hall.
But that was Harlan’s only scoring game in the first half. The Cyclones offense, which has accumulated points against opponents all season, struggled to score against Mount Vernon. Sure, Harlan led with a total of 130 yards of offense and seven first downs in the first half — compared to the Mustangs’ 70 yards and four first downs.
But the period of ownership told a different story. Mount Vernon held the ball for 12:44 of the first two quarters; Harlan was just behind with 11:16 possession. Shorter fields and longer possession times — plus a field goal in the late second quarter — helped the Mustangs, and Mount Vernon went into the dressing room with a narrow 9-7 lead at halftime.
The Mustangs continued their success in the second half. Meeker intercepted a pass from Kasperbauer on the third play of the quarter and put Mount Vernon in scoring position at the 25-yard line. Harlan’s defense made another stop, and the kick wasn’t good.
Mount Vernon didn’t give up easily, scoring 16 unanswered points in the third quarter. Kasperbauer threw Jacob Birch for his first touchdown of the day with 16 seconds left in the third frame and Cade Sears pulled in the two-point conversion, but the Mustangs’ 8-point lead stayed strong into the fourth quarter.
In the last 12 minutes there was again a tough offensive against a tough defense. Mount Vernon would make a big play, and Harlan’s offense would find a way to move the ball further forward. The Cyclones converted 3 of 3 fourth down attempts. The Mustangs converted 2 out of 3.
“We struggled a bit in the first half,” Hall said. “We made adjustments … and we started playing pieces. (Jacob) Birch and Cade Sears, they’ve done great for us.”
And that otherwise the defenses of Mount Vernon will be shut down? It allowed Harlan to tie the game at 23 apiece with 3:39 on the clock. It was the Cyclones defense that made the next stop, forcing the Mustangs to return the ball to Harlan’s offense with 2:04 hours remaining.
On the second pull of the drive, Kasperbauer met Sears with a 48-yard pass, and the Cyclones took the lead for the first time since the first frame with less than a minute and a half to go. Harlan stopped Mount Vernon again, took the downs from the 15 yard line, and knelt to end the game.
For Hall, used to winning games by a bigger margin with Harlan, he relished the excitement of a close matchup.
“Closer games are more fun,” Hall said of the Cyclones’ comeback. “It’s not fun to just blow every team. I’m glad these guys fought us for our money.”