They say winning solves everything.
It's certainly been the case for the Newton football team the past two weeks. Following a demoralizing 49-7 loss at Class 3A No. 3 Grinnell on Sept. 21, the Cardinals had a 1-4 record. It was one of the worst losses in school history, as Grinnell led 42-7 at halftime.
Two weeks later, Newton is riding high and has the playoffs in its sights. The Cards beat Dallas Center-Grimes 17-7 on Sept. 28, and are coming off a thrilling 17-13 road upset over then-No. 8 Adel-DeSoto-Minburn last Friday.
The Grinnell loss put Newton at a crossroads. It could have folded at that point and gone through the motions the rest of the season, or it could do everything possible to turn things around. It's evident which path the Cardinals took.
"After the Grinnell loss, we challenged these kids to fight and play every down with heart and let the rest of the season play out," Newton head coach Ed Ergenbright said. "We had to do those two things if we were going to give ourselves a chance."
While the ADM win didn't improve the Cardinals' already favorable chances of making the playoffs since it was a non-district game, the confidence boost it provided was just as valuable.
"We wanted to come here and see if we could play with a team of this caliber," Newton senior running back/linebacker Dakota Hills said after the win Friday night. "Knowing that we can, we need to play these next games against Saydel and Ballard knowing we can beat them and that we are the better team."
Hills' 46-yard touchdown run in the first quarter vs. ADM and Andrew Clements' 52-yard game-winning touchdown reception in the fourth may have caused the biggest celebrations last Friday, but it was
Newton's defense that was the story of the game. After giving up a 99-yard drive for the Tigers' first score, the Cardinals' locked down from then on. They made ADM senior running back Jordan Grove — who entered the game averaging more than 230 rushing yards per game — a non-factor. He had all 99 yards of the Tigers' first scoring drive, but was held to just two the rest of the game.
ADM had averaged 450 yards of offense per game entering the game, but was held to 328 against Newton — with more than half of it coming on its first touchdown drive and its final possession that ended with an interception in the Cards' endzone.
Equally important was the ability of Newton's offense to gain enough first downs to keep the Tigers' offense off the field. The Cardinals possessed the ball for 6 minutes and 20 seconds longer than ADM did, keeping their defense fresh. Newton forced the Tigers to punt six times and recorded six sacks.
"We wanted to go on the road and play a good team and prove we could hang with the best," Ergenbright said. "The goal of this team is to make the playoffs. A couple weeks ago, that seemed like a pretty far-fetched goal. To get there, you've got to show you belong. I think these guys now believe they belong."
Newton (3-4, 2-2 Class 3A District 4) hasn’t made the playoffs since 2007, and it still has work to do to get there this season. It needs to win at least one of its two remaining games — vs. Saydel and Ballard — and the Cards’ fate more than likely will come down to the Ballard game.
Newton is currently in fourth place in the district standings, and four teams make the playoffs. Ballard and Dallas Center-Grimes are tied for fifth with a 1-3 district record, and face off Friday night. If Ballard wins, it would set up essentially a playoff game vs. Newton next week to determine who finishes in that all-important fourth spot — regardless of the Cardinals’ outcome vs. Saydel.
Thanks to South Tama’s win over Boone last week, it’s actually still possible for Newton to finish as high as second place in the district — which would award it a home playoff game in the first round. Boone is 3-1 in the district and beat Newton convincingly back on Sept. 7, but has to play at undefeated Grinnell this week and then hosts DCG next week. The Cards also would need South Tama (4-1) to lose at Grinnell next week.
It’s never wise to say any game should be an easy win — no matter who the opponent — but it’s safe to say Newton is highly favored against its Friday opponent. Saydel hasn’t won a game since Sept. 11 2009 — a streak of 32 games. Only a few of the games in that streak have been competitive. The Cardinals beat the Eagles 57-14 in 2010 and 40-6 last year. In five district games this season, Saydel has been outscored 301-8. Its most recent loss was 47-0 to DCG.
Friday night also is Senior Night for Newton, which totes 22 such members on its roster.
“It’s a special group of seniors that have worked hard,” Ergenbright said. “The beginning of the season was a tough start, but they’re resiliant and they hung in.”