CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Cedar Rapids Prairie was attempting to make lightning strike twice, but Cedar Rapids Xavier weathered the storm.
The third-ranked Saints that will be able to take shelter in the UNI-Dome with a 28-7 win over Prairie in an Iowa High School Athletic Association Class 4A state quarterfinal Friday night in front of well more than 4,000 spectators at Saints Field.
Xavier (12-0) received a boost to the running game from Wes Gardner, who ran for 172 yards and two touchdowns and the Saints defense shut out a potent Hawks offense for the final 35:46 to return to the UNI-Dome since reaching the 2009 semifinals.
"They're such a dangerous, athletic team," Xavier Coach Duane Schulte said. "We had to come up with some stops and we did. We got on track offensively. It helped us win."
Gardner provided a spark when Xavier trailed 7-0 in the second. He helped get the Saints in rhythm similar to how he had 89 of his previous 187 yards in a win over Cedar Falls. Schulte said his style reminded him of the success injured running back Cal Stovie had in a regular-season win over the Hawks.
"It was kind of a gut feeling," Schulte said. "I thought maybe Wes can run like Cal did in that first game. It turned out that way."
Gardner put Xavier on the board with a 5-yard score, capping an eight-play, 88-yard drive that tied the game at 7-7 with 4:38 to go in the first half. He also added a 2-yard TD provided the nail in Prairie's coffin with less than seven minutes remaining for the game's final points.
Gardner helped the Saints amass 182 yards of offense in the fourth quarter. He said he had no idea he would play a prominent role, but is always prepared.
"I'm just glad we won," Gardner said. "I'm glad to help out. The line picked it up. I had good blocks."
All-conference quarterback Reggie Schulte was held to just 104 yards passing by a stout Prairie defense. He added 49 rushing yards, including a 12-yard TD run followed by a Gardner conversion that gave the Saints a 21-7 lead with 8:51 in the fourth.
Prairie Coach Mike Morrissey complimented the Saints run attack.
"They just did a great job up front," Morrissey said. "You can't take anything away (from Gardner), though. That kid ran hard. They took over up front."
The Saints defense seemed to take control after giving up a touchdown in the second quarter. They gave up 14 first downs, but held Jace Hanna to 190 yards on 17 of 46 passing and 82 rushing yards to Mitch Christensen. They were able to overcome the early challenge.
"When two good teams are going at it something's got to give," Xavier's Emiliano Martinez said. "We worked for it.
"We keep doing our jobs and good things are going to happen. That's the motto. We want to keep doing that.""
Xavier grabbed a lead thanks to the leg of kicker Ryan Persick, who nailed a 46-yard field goal with 21 seconds remaining before the half to give Xavier a 10-7 lead. He added a 38-yard field goal to open the third, giving the Saints a 13-7 advantage.
"He works hard in practice to nail those field goals," Martinez said. "He did a great job."
Schulte said he sense a momentum shift after those two field goals. The team responded in the second half, but Schulte didn't provide any big speech in the locker room. He emphasized 24 minutes of strong effort.
"Just execute and do your job," Schulte said. "It was a direct talk. I'm getting too old to have a moment."
The teams battled to a scoreless first quarter with both teams failing to produce points after driving into the opponents' territory. The Hawks first scoring drive bridge the first and second quarters. Christensen scored on a 6-yard touchdown to cap a 54-yard drive for a 7-0 Prairie lead with 11:46 to play in the first half.
The Hawks were hurt by penalties. Seven personal foul penalties were called against Prairie, extending some of the Saints' scoring drives. Prairie had 11 penalties total for 115 yards.
Prairie concludes an impressive turnaround season. After two straight 2-7 seasons, the Hawks finished 8-4 in Mike Morrissey's second year as Prairie's head coach. It was the furthest Prairie has advanced in the postseason since winning the 3A title in 1981.
"It's neat to see him doing what he's doing," said Schulte.
Xavier advances to face Cedar Falls (11-1) next Friday at 7:06 p.m. The Saints beat the Tigers, 24-7, at the UNI-Dome. Gardner said the Saints will treat it like another game, but earning the chance is a nice feat.
"It's pretty special," Gardner said. "I'm really happy for all the seniors that get to go, and just helping them get there."
The Xavier/Cedar Falls game, and all other state semifinal and final games, can be seen live on KCRG 9.2