CEDAR FALLS — For those who thought the Iowa High School Football Class 5A State Championship game between Southeast Polk and West Des Moines Valley was going to be close, the Rams have proved them wrong.
Southeast Polk took a 21-0 first-half lead, forced a continuous clock in the third quarter, and beat Valley 49-14 to win back-to-back state titles and bring home the second championship in program history.
“It feels great,” said Obald Niyonkuru, a senior Southeast Polk defenseman, after the win. “We have so much love for each other and we worked so hard together and I really knew we were going to pull this off.”
While there have been players who set themselves apart from the crowd with truly title-winning performances, it was an all-around team effort from the reigning champion. Let’s break down how it happened.
SEP and Valley were complete opposites in the first half.
The Rams rushed for a total of 378 yards in the first two quarters, and nearly all of those yards came from Abu Sama and Connor Moberly. Sama rallied for 166 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries, and his two results came from 65- and 73-yard streaks.
Moberly was equally impressive. He threw for 194 yards and a touchdown on nine completions. The first touchdown came from Moberly’s arm — an 89-yard pass play to Carson Robbins to set the tone early.
But on the flip side, the Tigers struggled to do what they’d been doing all postseason: surprise their opponents.
Valley defeated then-undefeated No. 1 Pleasant Valley in the first round and defeated Cedar Falls in the quarterfinals. The Rams upset Dowling Catholic 22-21 in the final minute of the semifinals to make it into the title game.
The Rams, however, were another beast for a Valley team that crept into the playoffs with a 5-4 regular-season record. The Tigers’ drives in the first half went like this: punt, punt, turnover on downs, punt, punt and another turnover on downs.
Valley’s second half didn’t go too well either, as the first drive ended in an interception. The Tigers had a few players trying to piece together plays – Ayden Price and Zay Robinson with decent reception power and Damon Head with some movement on the ground.
Price avoided a shutout, scoring Valley’s first touchdown early in the fourth quarter and stopping the running clock. SEP grabbed another touchdown, but Robinson returned the ensuing kickoff 93 yards to stop the clock again.
But the Tigers didn’t help either, giving up 77 yards on 10 penalties.
So, yes, Sama in particular played some of the best football players of his high school career. He finished for 372 yards on 24 carries and had six touchdowns. Oh, and according to Niyonkuru, Sama said “he wanted five but he got six”.
But let’s not forget that the reason Southeast Polk has been so successful is that the Rams have relied on a team effort in every game.
The Rams are the only team in 5A with two running backs – Sama and Harrison Gibson – who have rushed for 1,000 yards. Gibson didn’t play as big a role in the championship as he did in other games, but he was more than capable of stepping in.
There’s the offensive line that gave Sama time and space to make those big runs and kept Valley’s defense from reaching Moberly. Southeast Polk’s line has only allowed five sacks — one by Valley and two by Cedar Rapids Jefferson in the regular season and two by Johnston in the semifinals.
Carson Robbins led the receiving core with 166 yards and a touchdown. Joe Zelenovich, Sam Goode, Thaden Abbas, Owen Wignall and Sama brought SEP’s total receiving yards to 258.
And the defense consisted of 15 players who scored at least one tackle, led by Gabe Stiles (6.5 tackles, 2 sacks) and Emmanuel Gaye (5.5).
There are many reasons Southeast Polk was able to fight for its second straight state title on Friday. The Rams’ ability to bring all of those moving parts together is why Southeast Polk won.
“Our coaches teach us to do our jobs, every single person,” Niyonkuru said. “That really makes us a good team. Eleven as one.”