WYOMING, Iowa — This time a year ago, the Midland Eagles were a little bit awestruck, simply happy to be at the UNI-Dome for the first time in program history.
This year, they're hungry for more.
"This year we're more prepared. Last year we were just satisfied to get in there and it didn't go as planned," running back Austin Smith said. "Going into the season, we had two things on our mind -- a district championship and a state championship. Now, we've put ourselves into the best possible situation and we've just got to get it done now."
The Eagles face top-ranked and defending state champion Don Bosco in a rematch of last year's 8-player semifinal game at 9 a.m. Thursday. The Dons won that game 72-0 but the Eagles believe they're much better-situated to compete this year.
Last year, the team entered the semifinal without its top weapon in quarterback Alex Martens and lost a key defensive piece in Fisher Bisinger in the first quarter of the game. The Eagles are healthy and have a pretty potent offensive weapon in Smith this season.
The senior set the state's single-season 8-player rushing record in the Eagles' 52-50 win over Tripoli last week.
Smith passed the mark set by Adair-Casey's Andrew Leeper in 2006 and has 2,832 yards this season. He's dangerous, though, in many different ways. He's also added 478 passing yards and 262 receiving yards and has 56 total touchdowns. He's scored 64 more points this season than anybody else in the state, regardless of class.
"When you’ve got one of the best lines in the state, it should be like that. They do a great job blocking and any back that runs behind that line should have records," Smith said. "It’s my senior year, so I’m just trying to have as much fun as possible and win games."
After leading 8-player football in passing last year, the Eagles' goal was to equal the feat on the ground, and they did just that, but Smith's production was something unexpected.
"I didn’t know he was going to get to the 2,800, potentially up to the 3,000-yard mark but my goal for him was to get 2,000 yards," Midland head coach Casey Hack said. "He’s a special player, he works his butt off. I believed in him and knew he was capable of it."
While Smith will be leaned on to lead the Eagles, the Dons have a power offense of their own.
Dual-threat quarterback Wyatt Sawvel has thrown for 1,191 yards and rushed for 1,024 and has 48 touchdowns. Complementing him is Austin Svoboda, who has 822 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground.
The two teams met in the first game of the season, with Don Bosco winning 60-26 and Sawvel accounting for six touchdowns. The Eagles feel they've learned a lot from that first meeting and are prepared for the rematch.
"They’re just good. I think as long as we keep them inside, we’ll be fine, just don’t let them get outside of us, that’s the big thing," said senior Drew Gravel, who is third on the team with 53.5 tackles and has an interception on the year. "I think as long as we keep him inside of the box, and don’t let him get through us, we’ll be just fine."
With what the Eagles lost after last season and the change in offensive styles, the Eagles getting back to the Dome wasn't always a sure thing. It's becoming clear that a strong tradition is being built in Wyoming.
They believe the program is getting to the point where this level of success can be sustained, but the Eagles don't just want to sustain it, they want to surpass it.
It will take a special effort, but one the team feels capable of giving.
"When we play teams like Don Bosco, we know and we preach we have to protect the football, we have to get first downs and eat clock because we know what they’re capable of, they’ve shown us that multiple times, so that’s our goal going in is to not be intimidated, to just go out and play football," Hack said.
"In order to get to where we want to be, we eventually have to beat Don Bosco, and that’s the goal our team has. Our team’s goal wasn’t to make it there to play Don Bosco, our team has a goal of trying to win state titles, and that’s what we really pride ourselves on."