ALGONA - Early in the second half of a nip-and-tuck slugfest, Alta coach Kevin Hammer and his staff laid down a challenge.
"It was 14-7 and we had come out flat to start the second half and Bishop Garrigan was just shoving it down our throats for a touchdown. We challeged them to finish this game strong, and boy did they respond."
From that point, with a skinny 14-13 lead in the third quarter, Alta was on a mission, marching on offense and snatching a pair of fumbles and an interception en route to trouncing #2 seed Garrigan 31-13 in a substate game Wednesday night to qualify for the playoffs next week.
"To borrow a quote from Coach Radke [the just-retired coaching legend fro neighboring Aurelia], the football gods were smiling down on us tonight," Hammer said.
A divine performance by senior Jack Mills didn't hurt, either - four touchdowns and 163 yards on 20 carries, to put him close to 1,200 yards on the season.
Alta got on the scoreboard first with a 12-yard TD run by Mills, with an extra-point kick by Jake Syndergaard.
Garrigan answered with a second-quarter score on an eight-yard run.
Then with Alta mired deep in its own territory, Mills ran the Cylones bread-and-butter off tackle plunge, found a seam, made a nifty cutback, and picked up good blocking to go 86 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
The Golden Bears, riding a four-game win streak, seemed to be taking control early in the second half, capping off a drive with a short TD run, but missing the point after.
After not finishing in typical Alta style in the district title game last week, the Cyclones seemed determined not to repeate the scenerio. With seven minutes left in the game, Mills scored on a nine-yard run. Alta promptly recovered a fumble at midfield on the next series and marched inside the 10, where Syndergaard nailed a field goal to make it 24-14 with 3:30 to play. Alta kicked off and recovered another fumble, with Mills scoring from eight yards out, and the PAT closing the scorebook.
Standout senior speedster Mike Huseman went down with a hamstring pull, but Ben Stevens and others stepped up to fill his shoes, Hammer said.
With the run game firing on all cylinders, the Cyclones had little need for the pass, completing just three of five attempts for 29 yards. Garrigan was three of 10 for 47. Alta claimed a rushing edge, 250 yards to 147, averaging almost five yards a carry.
"Our defense played very well, holding a team that has just run over people to under 200 yards in total offense," he said.
Mills had 11 tackes, Syndergaard had seven and recovered a fumble, Cameron Manteufle had seven solos with a key second-half sack, Austin Stille had five tackles and a fumble recovery, Ben Stevens had four and the interception.
"It had seemed like we've been a little snakebit lately, so it was very welcome to see the ball rolling our way and to be the ones coming away with the fumbles," Hammer said. "These guys have been very focused all year long. They had gone into last week looking for first place in the district, and ended up third. When things weren't going their way in the third quarter tonight, they could have rolled over, but they hung in there. We are very excited to have a chance to move on to the playoffs."
On Monday, Alta gets a shot at redemption against the district champions, Akron-Westfield, in Akron. The Westerners edged Alta in an overtime heartbreaker Friday to close the regular season.
"After just playing them, these two teams know each other pretty well, and it looks like a classic matchup," Hammer said.