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2022 Fall Sports Preview: West Hancock Football

Coming off an undefeated state championship last year, the West Hancock football team has gone 649 days since they last lost a football game. With some key pieces departing, West Hancock and head coach Mark Sanger will have holes to fill.

Sometimes it’s hard to say how you will the holes of players leaving, we have 4-6 guys returning on both sides of the ball, and we have some young guys, and it’s their time to shine”, said Sanger.

Senior leader Rylan Barnes, a top college recruit in Iowa, thinks the team is heading in the correct direction. “I think we have our mind where we want it to be. Everyone knows where we want to end the season – we want that late start to the basketball season, stated Barnes. “Things have gone well,” said West Hancock football coach Mark Sanger. “We have about 46 kids out, and for a small school, that’s pretty (good)”. 

Barnes caught 13 passes for 283 yards and seven touchdowns last year for the Eagles, but where he made his money was on defense. As a junior, Barnes made 73 total tackles, 36 solo and five for a loss. For coach Sanger, it’s tough to find the perfect place to put a player like Barnes, who could achieve success almost anywhere, “He’s a special talent (sometimes) you just don’t know where to put him to maximize the effect on a game. He’s played fullback, linebacker, tight end, Punter, kicker, and he’s a young man willing to do what’s best for the team, Sanger said. Besides all the positions Sanger mentioned, Barnes also threw one pass for an incompletion last season.

The fullback position is the most glaring hole for the Eagles after graduating one of the best in the entire state last year, Matthew Fanics. Francis is currently serving our country in the United State Air Force, and last season he was unstoppable. Francis ran 271 times for 1,923 yards and 29 touchdowns.

Francis wasn’t the only senior that West Hancock will miss this year. Kane Zuehl, Branden Walk, and Logan Leerar each scored four or more touchdowns. At the same time, Zuehl and Walk rushed for over 1,300 yards combined. All those previously mentioned also contributed to defense. While a group of linemen also won’t return this year for the Eagles.

Senior Rhett Eisenman was thankful to have learned from those who came before him, “They were amazing, they helped us out a lot. (Learning) from them putting their shoes on taking the leadership role to help the younger kids”, said Eisenman.

Why has the West Hancock program not missed a beat for decades? Eisenman explained it perfectly, “We teach them everything that we do. They’ll learn and get used to what needs to be done.” Eisenman said about the younger athletes. “We learn from the seniors, the next class learns from them, and it just keeps going.”

For a program built to run, and everyone – even the opponents – knows what’s coming -two of the biggest plays for the Eagles last year came via the pass. The Eagles could utilize junior Mitchell Smith in the passing game more often this year. Smith, standing 6’3″ and over 200 pounds, completed nearly 60 percent of his passes last year and nearly 18 yards per completion. He threw five touchdown passes without an interception with over 250 yards on just 14 completions. Smith says, now that he’s an upperclassman, he’s having more fun but will also be tasked with more responsibility, “Your looked at differently. We have to set a good example for the (younger kids) coming up, toughen them up”.

“I think the sky is the limit. He’ll definitely see his time at quarterback”, Sanger said of Smith. However, Sanger mentioned that other guys are fighting for playing time at that same position and that possibly Smith could be used in different positions besides just quarterback offensively.

For the young Smith, the fact that West Hancock might only pass in a crucial situation during a game puts more pressure on the quarterback to complete passes at a higher frequency, “I’m always mad, I’m pretty hard on myself if I make a bad pass or a bad read, but you have to just move on,” said Smith.

Smith is not just good on offense; he will be a vital part of the West Hancock defense as he was a year ago. “I say working hard has made me better. My bigger brother has helped me also.”

How does West Hancock keep the winning going, win a district title, and possibly a state title? “We have to figure out what guys need to play in what positions, that’s first, then we focus on Garner,” said Sanger. “We need to block well, tackle well, we have the things we hang our hat on, but we also have other things well be able to do better this year than last year.”

Rylan currently has offers from NCAA D-II schools but has drawn interest from schools such as UNI, Drake, Western Illinois, and North Dakota State, all NCAA D-I FCS schools. At the same time, Iowa State has invited him for a game day visit in September. “It’s good to have that, but once you step on the field, you have to clear your mind and play football. Can’t worry about that stuff when you’re in the game – worry about that stuff later”, Barnes said of the recruiting process.

He does a lot and works hard – he’s fun to be around.”, Smith said of Barnes. “He’s gained some attention that he’s earned. It doesn’t just happen”, said coach Sanger. “Hard-working young man that’s so smart just knows the flow of the game and down and distance.” 

The coaches and players aren’t thinking about repeating and winning another state championship right now, other than the dreams, of course. But with the recent success, would the season be a disappointment without gold? “You know, there is always that goal,” Sanger said. He continued, “You have to win the first one before the next; you have to win the district title before the playoffs. We want to compete in the playoffs and make a run, and play our best football in the playoffs – small steps and small goals. If you can keep your group injury free and ready to roll in the playoffs, that’s when it’s fun”.


West Hancock will scrimmage Algona on Friday before they open the season with their Hancock County rival GHV on August 26th.


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