CEDAR FALLS, Iowa - Seven years ago a group of middle school students occupied the stands to watch Iowa City Regina football players hoist a state title trophy.
After sharing the spotlight with two talented classes, they took center stage for their golden moment on the UNI-Dome turf Friday afternoon.
Now seniors, these Regals added to the football tradition, claiming a third straight state title and extending the program's winning streak to 42 games. Regina senior quarterback Mark Ward threw for two TDs and a 1A championship record 297 yards, including 125 to classmate Mike Donovan, for a 35-14 win over eighth-ranked Council Bluffs St. Albert in the Iowa High School Athletic Association state final.
The top-ranked Regals (14-0) won 2A titles in 2010 and 2011, but this is the first 1A crown since 2005. The same year those youngsters watched from the stands.
"Ever since 2005, we said we were going to win state," Donovan said. "To finally see that happen, it's awesome with these same guys. It's unreal."
Regina kept winning despite losing a number of starters to graduation. The Regals varsity lost just two games - its only two losses in 2009 were to eventual 2A state champion Solon - during these seniors' four years.
"We've been on a great streak and coming up here our sophomore and junior year even pushed us more," said Donovan, who put Regina up 7-0 with a 1-yard touchdown in the first and sealed the win with a 5-yard TD run with 2:23 remaining in the game. "We knew it was our job to get the three-peat and keep the streak alive."
The title run was completed with a strong second half, as the Regals outscored the Falcons, 21-0, highlighted by a 14-point fourth quarter. A halftime tie didn't fluster the Regals.
"We were fairly confident," Ward said. "We knew we had adjustments we could make. They made some plays, but we also had some busts, so we knew we could come out there, we thought we were the better team and we proved that the second half."
They took control early after the break, forcing St. Albert to punt after getting one of only two first downs after the break.
The big blow came on Regina's possession. Facing a 3rd and 18 from their own 35, Ward dropped back and hit Alex Balke for 46 yards down the right sideline, making the catch and falling on his back. The play was similar to a 4th-and-long the duo converted in a tied semifinal, which led to the go-ahead score.
"That was huge," Ward said. "It was just a go-route to Alex Balke. He's a ball player. He's one of a kind. He's my main guy.
"I put it up there and he came down with it. He made a play."
The next play Riley Dixon took a Ward screen pass 19 yards for a touchdown, getting a key block from lineman Daniel Gaffey inside the 5-yard line. Dixon, who led Regina with 56 rushing yards, gave the Regals led 21-14 with 5:35 left in the third.
"The opening drive of the second half was huge," Regina Coach Marv Cook said. "St. Albert did some great things offensively against our defense early. Coach (Jason) Dumont and (Mike) Brinkman made some adjustments.
"To stop them ... gave us good field position and then we went down and scored and that was a huge, huge momentum booster."
Regina increased its lead thanks to two Nick Dolezal field goals, including a 34-yard kick with 5:55 left to capitalize on one of three Regina interceptions in the final quarter. The final forced turnover led to Donovan's last score, capped by a two-point conversion from Ward to Mike Sehl.
"We switched some things offensively that we think helped a little bit," Cook said. "Ultimately, our players made plays when they had to. That's what came down to the difference."
Ward is at the core of that group of playmakers. He became the third Regina quarterback during the title streak, following Jack Verducci and Nate Streb. The seniors relish this title a little more because they were the leaders, and not just contributors.
"It feels great, actually," Ward said. "This is the third year in a row. This is the first year I started and had a significant impact on the team, but it feels good being able to put your skill set out there. All that hard work and all those early lifting have come to an end and made a difference."
The first half seemed to favor the Falcons (12-2) until Ward completed his first TD throw, connecting with a wide open Matt Streb on a post pattern. The 40-yard score tied the game, 14-14, with 2:50 before halftime.
Culjat said the Falcons needed a near perfect performance. They were close the first half, taking a 14-7 lead on two Cole Herr 3-yard TD runs. Herr had 43 yards rushing, and Tucker Culjat had 115 total yards, including a team-high 75 rushing.
"We knew we had to play a pretty flawless game to beat them and I thought we played a pretty flawless first half," Kevin Culjat said. "The second half we played just as hard, but they just played better."
The victory is a testament to the hard work the seniors, and their teammates, have displayed the last four years. Preseason work started shortly after the Regals second title, holding lifting sessions the Sunday after the 2011 championship game, according to Dixon. He praised the class he will be replacing next season.
"It's an amazing feeling," Dixon said. "I can't thank them enough."
Ward said he hopes the seniors were a good role model for the underclassmen that take over for next year. It sounds like they are following in the seniors footsteps, working to extend the state's seventh-best winning streak.
"We'll be after it Monday morning," Dixon said. "I know I'll be in there at 6 a.m. getting after it. We're going to go after that four-peat like we did this three-peat. We're not going to let anything get in the way. The train is going to keep rolling. I can't wait."