Oskaloosa–The William Penn football squad began a so-called rebuilding year with three consecutive losses, but has improved exponentially as the fall has progressed and now the Statesmen can call themselves conference champions after rallying to win 27-24 over Graceland in Heart of America Athletic Conference North Division play Saturday.
The Statesmen (7-3, 4-0 North), winners of seven in a row, trailed 24-14 early in the fourth quarter, but scored two touchdowns in the final 11 minutes. WPU’s win, coupled with #6 Grand View’s 7-3 loss to Benedictine, locked up the program’s seventh conference title and its third in the last seven seasons (first since 2012).
WPU will now seek to win its first outright crown since 1976 next Saturday when it travels to Des Moines to meet Grand View at noon. Due to its three-loss record, William Penn will likely have to win to earn a spot in the NAIA’s Football Championship Series.
The hosts started Saturday deep in their own territory, but 13 plays and six minutes later, they took an early 7-0 lead with an impressive 98-yard scoring drive. Nate Van Veldhuizen (So., Oskaloosa, Iowa, Mechanical Engineering), who rushed for 39 yards, capped the drive with a one-yard plunge.
The Yellowjackets (4-6, 2-1 North) were coming off big wins over Benedictine and Peru State and looking to spoil William Penn’s Senior Day celebration. GU started on its way with a field goal to close out the first quarter with WPU ahead 7-3.
The Statesmen marched down the field for another long drive to start the second period. Van Parker (Sr., Muskegon, Mich., Physical Education) eventually pushed the edge to 14-3 by rushing in from seven yards out. The senior signal-caller carried 19 times for a team-best 108 yards (WPU had 246 rushing yards total).
Graceland answered right back, though, with a touchdown of its own and nearly claimed the lead at halftime, but was stopped inside the red zone in the final two minutes as the Statesmen walked into the locker room up 14-10.
In an evenly-contested matchup that saw GU outgain WPU 331-322, the visitors dominated the third quarter with a touchdown and a field goal. Their momentum extended into the final stanza with another field goal for a 24-14 Graceland advantage.
With its season on the line for the umpteenth time over the past several weeks, the Statesmen regrouped and went 58 yards to narrow the deficit to 24-20 (extra point blocked). The touchdown came on one of the best trick plays the program has attempted in recent history.
On third-down-and-goal from the 4-yard line, fullback Amos Johnson (Jr., Rock Island, Ill., Mechanical Engineering) was handed the ball on an untraditional reversal. Then just before running into several Yellowjacket defenders, he lofted a pass to the endzone and a wide open Cory Fitzjarrell (Jr., Anderson, Calif., Industrial Technology) for the TD. The junior tight end’s catch was his first of the year.
In the ensuing possession, the Yellowjackets moved onto the Statesmen side of the gridiron, but their possession stalled out. Their punt, though, pinned William Penn at its own 14-yard line with 3:54 to go in regulation. Due to its missed extra point on the last score, WPU was forced to go the entire 86 yards to regain the lead.
Seven running plays got the Statesmen to midfield, but with the season on the line for the umpteenth-and-1st time, they had to convert a long fourth down play. Parker kept the drive alive by finding fellow senior Desmond Douglas (Decatur, Ala., Ga., Physical Education) across the middle for 11 yards (WPU needed nine). Run-happy William Penn again unconventionally went to the air a couple plays later, but this time it was Jeremiah Benson (Fr., Kansas City, Mo., Physical Education) who hauled in a Parker pass, scoring from 30 yards out to give the lead back to the home squad at 27-24.
Parker completed three of his eight passes for 72 yards.
The defense which had kept William Penn close all afternoon was asked to produce one final stop and it did. On fourth-and-14 at GU’s 21-yard line, Kyle Baldassarre (Jr., Webb City, Mo., Industrial Technology and Business Management) delivered a bone-crushing legal blow that stopped receiver Davonte Myers in his tracks for a 13-yard reception, one yard short of a first down.
The Statesmen defense did not force a normal turnover Saturday, but had more than enough big plays, including seven pass breakups. Mason Wisse (Jr., Oskaloosa, Iowa, Physical Education) and Clive Manuao (Fr., Norwalk, Calif., General Accounting) each tallied nine tackles to lead the way.
“This was a great win for our program,” Head Coach Todd Hafner said. “We did not play our best, but in the end we found a way to win. We played hard enough, stuck together like we always do, and trusted teach other to the very end. Now we will heal up and get our mind ready to play one more week.”
“We have been playing one week at a time for the last seven weeks and in the end we hope it is good enough again,” Hafner added. “We are proud of each and every one of our players for what they do on a daily and weekly basis!”
Story provided by Wade Steinlage