The Early Lead: Revisiting the Rams playoff shocker 21 years ago
By BRANDON HURLEY
The Rams have been here before. They managed to shock a champion as massive underdogs 21 years ago.
The parallels are a bit eerie, setting the stage for another historic upset more than two decades later.
Why can’t Greene County replicate the past?
The Rams first trip to the UNI Dome was easily the most meaningful victory in school history, and what a run it was.
There’s certainly a chance Greene County may conjure up the magic of a bygone generation and secure another postseason stunner on Friday. History often repeats itself.
The infamous 1999 Jefferson-Scranton/Paton-Churdan football squad stumbled out to a slow start similar to this year’s squad, only to rally for culture-defining win streak, punctuated by a statement victory.
Those young and spry Rams led by hall of famer Bill Kibby were also up against an otherworldly playoff opponent, just like the 2020 Greene County Rams.
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Harlan is a town for winners, a robust community, in the heart of farmland, notorious for breeding champions.
The 1990s belonged to the Cyclones, a program which transcended Iowa. No one did it better than the football giants of western Iowa, owners of four state championships in that decade alone. With eight state titles in 23 years, the Cyclones were the epitome of success, having reached the state semifinals 20 times. Head coach Curt Bladt built champions, molding them into legends. From 1985 to 1992, Harlan won a state-record 66 regular season games in a row. A mark that still stands today.
The Cyclones were in the midst of yet another incredible streak as the 1999 season came to a close. They were proud owners of back-to-back state championships and a 19-game winning streak. They’d absolutely obliterated Grinnell in the 1998 state title game, 49-7 and seemed poised to capture a three-peat. Harlan was unbeatable, but the athletes from J-S/P-C knew different.
Coming off a 2-win season a year prior, the Rams possessed the recipe for shock, and now they were one win from the state semifinals.
In fact, the Rams’ road to the UNI Dome will likely never be duplicated. Even 21 years later it remains rather difficult to fathom. The IHSAA provided the Rams with no favors. If the students of J-S/P-C wanted to reach the state semifinals for the first time ever, they’d need to dethrone top three teams in back-to-back games, including a two-time defending champion.
J-S/P-C was comfortable as a giant slayer, upsetting third-ranked Denison-Schleswig, 21-14 in the opening round of the 2A playoffs. That victory came a few weeks after the Rams’ upset of a ranked Boone squad in week seven of the regular season. They knew how to hold their own with the big boys, delivering a number of knockout blows.
While this year’s Greene County unit is certainly no slouch, they aren’t nearly as battle-tested as the Rams from 21 years ago.
The 2020 Rams have not beaten a ranked squad this fall, though they, too, have won six straight, boosting their total to seven victories.
J-S/P-C entered the gigantic, David-and-Goliath-type quarterfinals showdown with top-ranked Harlan sporting a 7-3 record, riding a six-game winning streak. Oddly similar to this year’s squad, isn’t it? Those Rams tripped out of the starting blocks with a single win in their first four games – another losing season seemed inevitable.
The Rams didn’t have much to build off of entering the 1999 season, hoping to reverse their 2-7 campaign a year prior. Goals of a mere winning record seemed more attainable than a deep playoff run. But, just like the Rams of today, they defied the odds, exceeded expectations and rode a stalwart defense to the promised land.
“We weren’t expected to do anything this year,” Ram defensive tackle John Harrington said in the Nov. 9, 1999 issue of the Des Moines Register. “This is just great to be where we’re at.”
Greene County opened the 2020 slate at 1-2, only to rip off a six wins in a row, itching to take on undefeated PCM this coming Friday in the 2A third round.
Greene County stumbled mightily in their only battle with a ranked foe this fall, losing 34-7 to Class 1A No. 2 South Central Calhoun in week two. The Rams only other loss this season was to a now top 5 ranked Atlantic, 31-18 when the Trojans hadn’t yet caught the eye of AP voters.
That lack of high-level success certainly doesn’t mean Greene County can’t pull off a historic shocker of their own, but they certainly have their work cut out for them.
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Luke Ball and his Jefferson-Scranton/P-C teammates weren’t scared. They’d faced adversity head on before and came out victorious.
But, Harlan was on a roll, boasting a perfect 10-0 record and a No. 1 record and a home winning streak that spanned six years. The Cyclones came into the 1999 showdown averaging 34.5 points per game, allowing just 9.1 points per contest, boasting an average margin of victory of 25 points.
The Rams, they were shockingly calm, ready to end the streak.
“We knew these guys couldn’t last forever,” Ball said in the Des Moines Register. “We knew they had to lose sometime, so we thought it was our chance to get there.
The Rams more than held their own against the Goliath of 3A, securing a surprising 6-0 win, punching their first-ever trip to the state semifinals.
Defense defined the upstart Rams, fueling the electrifying playoff run. The Rams used two defensive touchdowns and five turnovers to upset Denison-Schleswig while their six sacks helped spring them to victory against Harlan.
The Rams were spectacular, shutting out Harlan for just the third time in 23 years, silencing the Cyclone offense which came in averaging 350 total yards and 250 alone on the ground. Harlan only managed 83 rush yards and 147 yards total against the impressive Jefferson-Scranton/Paton-Churdan defense. The Rams sent shockwaves through the state, upending the Cyclones for the first time at home in six years.
The Rams scored the eventual game-winning touchdown on a Scott Erickson six-yard run late in the first half, set up by a Harlan fumble, one of four turnovers J-S/P-C forced that night. Erickson actually recovered two fumbles while the Rams also forced a Harlan fumble inside their own 10 yard line.
Defensive stars like end Luke Ball, tackle Michael Walker and safety Jonathan Minnehan, who sealed the Harlan shocker with a huge interception, anchored one of the best units in school history. Defensive coordinator John Turpin kept Harlan on edge all night long, refusing to settle into any particular set which provided the Cyclones with little room to maneuver.
“We didn’t blitz as much as usual because we couldn’t find the keys we were looking for. They have such a balanced attack,” defensive coordinator John Turpin said in the Jefferson Herald following the Harlan win. “I thought our end and corner play was just superb on their reverse plays and in containing them. Our defensive backs played well, too. We tried to change things up so they didn’t see the same things all the time.”
The monumental victory was J-S/P-C’s first win ever against a No. 1 rated school thanks to 189 rushing yards. Running back Matt Lautner led the Rams with 110 yards on 19 carries while quarterback Dustin Briggs only slung the rock three times.
Unfortunately, the Rams’ Cinderella run was stopped cold in the Class 3A semifinals. J-S/P-C fell in an absolute heart-breaker, 10-8 at the hands of Central Lyon/George-Little, a contest that came down to the final play. The Rams’ game-winning, 21-yard field goal attempt was blocked as time expired, sending J-S/P-C home mere seconds from advancing to the state title game.
The two teams were scoreless the entire second half, making the loss even more painful. To this day, the devastating semifinal defeat remains the closest a Jefferson football team has ever come to reaching the state championship. The Rams reached the Dome one other time, back in 2006 thanks to an 11-game winning streak, but were once again stonewalled in the semifinals.
Greene County hall of fame coach Bill KIbby was rather stoic in his post game comments.
“It was a tremendous football game that went down to the wire,” Kibby said in the Jefferson Herald. “Nobody on our team quit and we had a shot to win it.
Our defense was outstanding again and the only disappointing thing about the whole experience was we came up two points short.”
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The connections between 1999 and 2020 are fairly simple. PCM, Greene County’s opponent this coming Friday in the 2A third round, is undefeated at 8-0, and ranked No. 1 in some polls. They average nearly 60 points per game and are looking to win their second state title in three years after running the table back in 2018. They are a dynasty, dispatching most of their on-comers with ease. PCM is the class of 2A, there’s little debate about that.
Interestingly enough, the silver-lining is PCM’s schedule make up. The Mustangs were gifted a rather generous regular season slate. Their eight opponents sport a combined 19-40 record while Greene County’s opponent’s record is 25-33. There’s a chance. The Rams are red-hot at the perfect moment. They’ve won each of their last five games by at least seven points. They are rolling.
An upset is possible. Just ask Class 3A No. 1 Dallas Center-Grimes how that undefeated jaunt through the regular season went. The Mustangs (hmm, coincidence?) were absolutely demolished by unranked Carlisle in last week’s second round, 49-7, a game in which Carlisle led 42-0 at the half.
Anything is possible, right?