STROMSBURG - Cross County football coach Hayden DeLano referred to his offense as “terrifying” after Tuesday’s 36-12 D-1 state quarterfinal victory over Tri County.
But his perspective wasn’t so much in its ability to execute or pile up yards and points as it was in the youth of the group. The Cougars depend on three sophomore offensive linemen and sophomore running back Carter Seim.
No, it wasn’t so much on the field, but off the field where DeLano was “terrified.” Each of those four sophomores, he said, just turned 16 and are learning to drive trucks. That, he joked, was the scary part.
Opponents who don’t share the roads of Polk County would disagree, everything about how Cross County has come together late in the season and now into the playoffs is the truly frightening aspect of facing the Cougars.
“They play so hard, they love each other and they believe in it,” DeLano said. “They make a ton of sophomore mistakes, everybody sees it, but their memory is so short. It’s just next play.”
Sophomore mistakes on Tuesday night included falling behind 12-0, fumbling the ball away and seeing a drive end on the Tri County 1 yard line.
Yet, even with all of that figured in, the Cougars took the lead for good with 5:31 remaining in the third quarter and poured it on the rest of the way.
Seim found the end zone four times, Cross County scored 36 straight points and the Cougars advanced to the D-1 state semifinals for the first time in program history.
“The cold weather wasn’t that big of a factor, we just got it going in the second half and got the running game going,” Seim said. “We executed a lot better in the second half.”
It started with Seim’s 32-yard touchdown run with 18 seconds left before halftime that began the Cross County onslaught.
Tri Center led 6-0 after a touchdown drive the first possession of the game then made it 12-0 with 2:06 left in the second on a 10-play drive that capitalized on a Cross County fumble.
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The Cougars finally found points in the ensuing drive, going 50 yards in six plays capped by Seim’s first score.
Down 12-0 after the Trojans failed on both two-point conversion tries, Seim closed it to 12-8 on a conversion around the right side following his first touchdown. Cross County received the opening kick of the second half but stalled on the Tri County 1 before scoring on the next five possessions.
Seim went in from 50 and 27 and scored both two-pointers for a 24-12 lead in the third quarter then Landen Berck capped a five-play drive on a 15-yard score to start the fourth. Seim found the end zone again on a 13-yard run just about five minutes later for the final points. He also set up the final scoring drive with an interception.
"Getting a touchdown at the end of the half was a big momentum changer. We just got things rolling after that," Seim said. "We just have to keep bouncing back. Those plays, we've just got to forget about them, short memory, keep bouncing back."
Seim's final line was 243 yards on 27 carries, good enough for 9 yards per carry and the four scores. Cross County had 318 total yards to 200 for Tri County and held the Trojans to just 31 yards in the second half. Tri County's second-half possessions consisted of four three-and-outs and an interception.
"They're 16 years old, and they're getting better every play. We told them this morning, it'll be crazy when we play offense and defense how we're supposed to," DeLano said. "All three touchdowns we've given up the last three weeks have been on busted coverages and busted assignments. We've got to get better, and I'm excited for what's ahead."
What's ahead is a game against rival Osceola-High Plains, a combined program that plays its games on a field 8 miles away. OHP took down No. 1 and top-seeded Howells-Dodge 28-14 on Tuesday after trailing 14-0.
The winner faces the winner of Burwell and Dundy County-Stratton in the state title game on Nov. 25 at Memorial Stadium.
"They're just growing. Every day that we have an extra practice, we're getting better. They're going to be good for several years," DeLano said. "But like I said, there's still a lot we have to clean up."
Nate Tenopir is the sports editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.