Defense set the tone for both sides in Aquinas Catholic's 21-14 road win at Hartington Cedar Catholic on Friday.
Neither side had much of a sustained attack in a game where big plays told the story.
Aquinas never trailed but twice found itself tied with a Hartington Cedar Catholic squad that just wouldn't go away. Braden Smith's 19-yard catch for a score in the third quarter proved to be the game-winner and sent the Monarchs to 2-1.
Smith caught three passes for 31 yards - more than half the total for the night. Quarterback Kyle Napier was 6 for 11 for just 52 yards, the one score and one interception.
A combination of five different Monarch ball carriers managed just 120 yards on 40 carries.
Much of the credit should probably go to Nolan Eller and the Aquinas defense. Eller had 13 tackles and recovered a fumble for a defense that forced two turnovers and came up with five tackles for loss.
"We found a way not looking the best. Our kids were solid, and our defense was pretty good. They only had four first downs outside of the two touchdowns," coach Ron Mimick said. "Our offense is still a work in progress.
"It's things that we're going over and over that we'll get better at."
Aquinas took the lead in the first quarter on Kaden Kozisek's 5-yard run. He finished the night with one touchdown on 10 carries for 25 yards.
Hartington Cedar Catholic answered back on a 74-yard run from running back Jacob Keiser.
Keiser, a former all-state honoree, is looking for his third straight 1,000-yard season after totaling 1,450 rushing yards as a junior and 1,437 as a sophomore. He was a force to be reckoned with, and often made the Aquinas defense look bad, Mimick said.
But after that big play, the Monarch defense mostly held him in check.
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The offense regained the lead on a 56-yard run from Napier in the second quarter. The Trojans tied it up again when Tate Thoene found Myles Thoene for a 55-yard scoring strike and a 14-14 halftime tie.
Smith then caught the game winner in the third quarter, and the defense did the rest.
Aquinas had just nine first downs, but Hartington Cedar Catholic only had six. The Trojans out gained the Monarchs by a slim 185 to 172 margin, neither team made much headway on kickoff and punt returns and Aquinas was the more penalized team 6-2, but only lost 25 yards on calls compared to 12 for Hartington Cedar Catholic.
"Right now, we're leaning on our defense," Mimick said. "Our offense, of the 10 main guys who do most of our blocking, only three of them are seniors. ...We're a little thin at running back, and our line is young but getting better. There's a lot of room for improvement, and I think we'll see a lot of improvement over the next two weeks."
The defense forced the fumble that set up the final score. Other than that, Monarch defenders did such a good job, there were no memorable stands or third-down stops.
Aquinas didn't even allow Hartington Cedar Catholic to take a snap in Monarch territory.
"I don't think they crossed the 50, other than the two touchdowns, or ever had a drive make it to our side of the field," Mimick said. "That's good, but that's also disappointing our offense did take better advantage of field position."
Running backs John Prochaska and Zach Pandorf are on the mend and may return for this week's contest on the road at Ponca. That plus another week of practice for a mix of experienced and inexperienced players along the offensive line has Mimick hopeful for Friday.
The Indians are 0-3 with all three losses by at least 30 points. The Monarchs appear to be heavy favorites who'll have a chance to build confidence before the district begins against No. 9 Utica Centennial.
"We are, in some ways, about where I thought we would be," Mimick said. "We're probably a little better defensively, not quite as good offensively and kick teams are right at what I expected.
"Our kids do what we need to do in practice, but we need to tweak what we do a little bit in our blocking fundamentals. I think that will solve a chunk of our problems."
Nate Tenopir is the sports editor of The David City Banner-Press. Reach him via email at DVDsports@lee.net.