CEDAR FALLS - Playing at the UNI-Dome has become almost a rite of passage for the tradition-rich Emmetsburg football program.
Now, the top-ranked E-Hawks (12-0) - who have previously captured nine state crowns in three different classes - will look to add to their impressive resume and keep their perfect season intact when they battle perennial power and No. 2 Council Bluffs St. Albert (12-0) in a highly-anticipated Class 1A semifinal clash here today.
Kickoff is set for noon at the home of the Northern Iowa Panthers.
"Each year (getting to the UNI-Dome) is certainly a goal of our kids," said EHS head coach Mike Dunlap, who owns a 58-11 career mark in six seasons at the helm. "We have a very hard working bunch with great character."
District 2 champion Emmetsburg, which boasts a sparkling 69-26 record in an Iowa best 36 all-time playoff appearances, has coasted through the postseason so far, earning decisive victories over Prairie Valley (47-0), Manson Northwest Webster (42-13) and 2010 state champion and ninth-ranked West Lyon (35-0).
One major reason for the E-Hawks' success again this fall has been the consistency of their smashmouth ground assault, which ranks sixth in the entire state and second in 1A with 4,003 yards and 50 touchdowns.
Senior Brady Berkland (136 carries, 1,059 yards, 18 scores), junior Andrew Wellik (137-991-14) and senior Marcus Akridge (88-673-6) form a lethal backfield trio for the E-Hawks, who average 38.2 points and 372.4 yards per game.
"I think we have some really unselfish backs," Dunlap said. "We also have a group of linemen willing to work very hard. They're just normal guys that always give a great effort."
Emmetsburg quarterback Ryan Kliegl, a 170-pound senior, has also thrown for 337 yards, including seven endzone strikes and two interceptions. Classmate Jake Carlson is the top receiver for the E-Hawks, hauling in seven catches for 206 yards and five touchdowns.
Defensively, Emmetsburg has been dominant throughout the course of the season, pitching five shutouts and forcing a combined 32 takeaways - 18 fumble recoveries and 14 picks. Berkland (121) and junior Austin McCartan (77) are the tackle leaders for the E-Hawks.
Senior Justin Studer has collected six interceptions as well, including one for a 43-yard score in a Week 8 48-6 rout of Alta-Aurelia. Akridge has also returned two of his team-high four fumble recoveries to paydirt - from 57 and 49 yards out.
"Our defense has played very well all year long," said Dunlap, who has guided his squad to four straight flawless regular seasons. "They've carried out all their assignments and been very physical."
Meanwhile, the District 8 champion Falcons are 40-18 in 23 all-time playoff trips. St. Albert, which bowed out in the 1A semifinals a year ago, has won four of the past seven 1A state titles and is making its eighth venture to the UNI-Dome in the last nine seasons. The Falcons advanced with postseason triumphs over Mount Ayr (47-7), Des Moines Christian (31-7) and No. 8 Logan-Magnolia (35-7).
Senior signal-caller J.D. Culjat of St. Albert has gone 62-for-124 through the air for 1,115 yards with 17 scores and three picks. Seniors Eric Assmann (14 grabs, 245 yards, 2 TD) and Connor Thomas (12-278-4) have been Culjat's favorite targets.
Tucker Culjat, a diminutive 137-pound sophomore, has accounted for 787 yards rushing and reached the endzone on nine occasions for St. Albert, which generates 40.5 points and 372.2 yards a night. Junior Cole Herr is right behind with 719 yards and 14 scores of his own.
"They're a wishbone team offensively," Dunlap said of the Falcons. "They run off tackle and have a lot of speed and great athletes."
Like usual, a dedicated fan following has been a key ingredient in Emmetsburg's recent fortunes on the gridiron.
"Our fan support is always great," said Dunlap. "The tradition obviously started with Coach (Duane) Twait, but we're just trying to keep it going."
Twait - the father of current Iowa Central football coach Kevin Twait - directed the E-Hawks to their first seven state crowns. Twait ranks fourth in Iowa history for most career wins, notching a 339-63-2 record in 39 years on the sidelines.
No. 10 St. Ansgar (10-2) faces West Branch (10-2) in today's other 1A semifinal matchup at 9:30 a.m. The 1A championship game will take place here next Saturday at 10:05 a.m.
Contact Josh Meyer at (515) 573-2141, or by e-mail at email@example.com