The state championship game is still in the back of the West Hancock Eagles’ minds heading into the 2023 football season, but the Eagles told KIOW earlier this week that dwelling on the past won’t help the Eagles get back on top in 2023.
“Yeah, I think everyone (has it) playing in the back of their heads,” said senior athlete Mitchell Smith. “Not disappointed, but we knew we could do better than that. We didn’t score a touchdown and kinda got blown out. This year everyone has little fire under them”, he added.
Smith is listed as an athlete because when he’s in the game, who knows what he will do? Take a snap and run, maybe throw – he can do a little of everything. Smith had a 47 percent completion rate in 2022, with 11 touchdowns through the air. He added another 11 touchdowns on the ground for West Hancock last year.
Senior Kale Zuehl ran for over 1000 yards last year for West Hancock, while classmates Jaxen Peterson, Evan Ford, and Kellen Smith, along with juniors Brady Bixel, Zephyr Jamtgaard, and Luis Sandoval, all return after contributing to the offense’s success last season.
“(We) feel good,” said head coach Mark Sanger. “We do have some guys to replace, but we have a lot of guys coming back as well, about half and half on both sides of the ball. We also have guys anxious to step in and fill those spots for the guys we lost – excited to see who steps up and surprises you – always have those guys”, he added.
The biggest name not returning is current Iowa State Cyclone Rylan Barnes. But Kellen Smith says nothing has changed in the past half-decade; guys leave, and new guys step up to fill those voids.
“I don’t think it changes. I feel like we’ve had that problem like the seniors go out, and a lot of them are really good, and you have to fill the spots”, said Smith.
This West Hancock senior class is 34-3 in their high school career. Zuehl, who has played since his freshman season, says he’s learned leadership from the seniors that came before him.
“Encouragement. When I’m tired and go back into the huddle, last year those guys would be like, good job or anything – it just makes you feel better to keep your spirits high”, said Zuehl.
Senior Jaxen Peterson is trying to take everything in. He knows that everything he’s doing is for the last time.
“Yeah, it’s definitely surreal. Some of our coaches are saying to savor every moment on the field because you don’t get unlimited time – a lot of us aren’t going on (play in college), so we have to savor every moment, ” said Peterson.
Mitchell Smith is hoping to continue his football career in college. The multiple sports star says right now, his focus is on West Hancock, and if he gets time, he will make highlight tapes to send to coaches.
“I’m going to worry about what we’re doing here as a team first,” Smith said. “Then, if I have some time, I might go to Hudl and make some highlights, but other than that, I’m going to focus on our team.”
West Hancock fans will see the Eagles face a similar schedule to last year, even with a redistrict this year. Coach Sanger says, just looking at what teams are in Class A, the schedule is what he expected it to be.
“Looking at who the Class A schools are this year and how it’s spread out, this is kinda where I figured we’d be, Sanger said. “All of our district games are conference foes, so it’s familiar people we play in everything,” he added.
The start of the 2023 school year is the starting line of one last go for the seniors, not just in football but all sports. Once the football season ends, these guys will go their separate way to wrestling, play basketball, or prepare for spring and summer sports.
“A lot of our sports tie into each other, mentality wise, one sport you do good, so you try to continue that expectation onto other sports – that’s why our coaches encourage us to do other sports too,” said Peterson
With emotion, Kellen Smith says, wearing West Hancock across his chest, “Means everything, man.” He added, “I’ve witnessed how other schools do things, and I know that we do things differently, and I’m going to be a better person when I graduate because of this (attending West Hancock).
The Eagles scrimmage three-star quarterback Alex Manske and Algona tomorrow night. They will open the season at Sanger Field, hosting cross-county rival Garner-Hayfield-Ventura on Friday, August 25th.