SIOUX CITY - Mitch Martin, all 5'9" and 130 pounds soaking wet of him, found himself tucked under center Friday night, getting his first-ever start at quarterback for Storm Lake, staring down the barrel of the stacked, unbeaten, number-two ranked Bishop Heelan Crusaders on their own field.
The diminutive sophomore was called upon to replace senior starter Nic Seaman, suffering from headaches and a possible concussion after a helmet-to-helmet blast in last week's loss to Carroll, amid withering pressure all night from Heelan's dominant front four featuring a couple of DI prospects.
Heelan immediately lived up to its hype. Storm Lake never progressed past its own 40 yard line for the first three quarters, while Heelan capitalized on four straight Tornado turnovers and slammed in three touchdowns in just over 60 seconds late in the first half to salt away the victory early.
Storm Lake began with a pair of three-and-out possessions, while Heelan's first drive was a sudden, two play strike in 19 seconds, with a 48-yard TD run from senior Manny Alcaraz. The Tornado defense steeled and forced Heelan to punt on its second possession, but a hard hit on Storm Lake running back Aaron Krier jarred the ball loose, Heelan recovering on the SL 27. The Tornadoes mounted a goal-line stand, forcing Heelan to settle for a 20-yard field goal to push the score to 10-0 late in the opening stanza.
An interference call bailed out the next Tornado drive briefly, but Tyler Cropley fielded an overthrown pass to give Heelan good position again at the 50. After a 10-play march, Heelan QB Trent Solsma found Connner Niles on a short TD throw, pushing the Crusaders' lead to 17-0. Storm Lake's offense got pushed backward, and Martin was picked off, leading to a three-yard TD plunge by Heelan fullback Jacob Dunn. SL's Martin then fumbled under heavy pressure, and on the next play Solsma found Niles behind the defense for a 27-yard TD completion to make it 31-0. Storm Lake was forced to punt and a muffed snap gave Heelan the ball on the SL 3, and a few moments later freshman phenom Jack Wegher connected with 6'7" tight end Connor Spears on an 11-yard halfback option pass.
The second half opened under the continuous clock with the 38-0 spread, Heelan coming out of the locker room with many substitutes including a backup quarterback. They ground out a drive that consumed much of the third quarter, but were stopped inches short of the goal line on fourth down. Storm Lake's punt from its own end zone was fielded by Heelan's Jake Nelson, who ran it back 33 yards for a TD to make it 45-0, the only scoring of the second half. Early in the fourth quarter, Krier broke loose on a 50-yard ramble to get into Heelan territory for the first time, but SL fumbled the ball away on the next play. A Heelen punt pinned the Tornadoes inside their own 10, but the young SL quarterback showed poise, gaining his first completions as he nailed Luke Lenhart for 25 yards, then hit Jay Grant for 27 on a circus catch one play later in the closing minutes.
Storm Lake Coach Craig Lyon said his team simply isn't on Heelan's level, and while they made some mistakes, they did deliver some strong individual performances that didn't show up on the scoreboard.
He praised his linebacking duo of Jack Hartnett and Chase Lange, along with safety Lenhart, for their steady play defending the middle this season.
Krier was Storm Lake's most effective weapon against the big Heelan lineup, compiling 108 yards rushing, while the rest of the ballcarriers could only muster a negative 39 yards collectively. Martin, put in a tough spot, showed courage going the distance, his coach said. SL will need to work on every aspect of its game in practice this week to eliminate "boneheaded" mistakes, according to Lyon.
Heelan did most of its damage on the ground, completing only six passes, half of them for touchdowns. For Storm Lake, Martin was two of 11 with two interceptions for 52 yards. Five turnovers and five penalties had SL buried before it could get started.
Now 2-4, Storm Lake hosts winless Sgt. Bluff-Lyton Friday. With two district games ahead in the next two weeks, they still have a chance for three district wins which could well get them into a playoff spot. 6-0 Heelan travels to Carroll.
The Tornadoes hope to have Seaman back for that game, but Lyon said they will take no chances and he will not play if he is still experiencing headaches.