SIDNEY, Iowa — Jake Thorne is a cowboy.
Not just the kind who plays football for Sidney, but the kind who rides bulls.
The senior fullback/linebacker competed in about 20 rodeos over the summer. He won four titles and estimates he earned nearly $1,200 for his efforts.
Riding a bucking bull is a trying endeavor. Comparatively speaking, stopping the reigning Eight-Man champs on fourth-and-goal from the 2 with a one-point lead seems like child's play.
“Ooh, I don't think so. That was crazy,” Thorne said. “That was pretty nerve-racking.”
If a guy who is winning rodeo titles by riding bulls for eight seconds at a time said the final 3.7 seconds of Sidney's 31-30 victory over Fremont-Mills was more intense, who's to argue?
Anyone at last Friday's Eight-Man, District 8 showdown here could feel the tension in the air.
The Cowboys (6-0) stopped the Knights inside the 5 on four consecutive downs in the final minute to take sole possession of the district lead while ending Fremont-Mills' 18-game win streak.
To Sidney coach Donnie Sears, the reaction locally was one he'd expect after a state championship victory, not after a regular-season win in Week 6. He said that had everything to do with the respect that everyone in his town has for what Fremont-Mills has recently accomplished.
The Knights were coming off the most dominant season in the 12-year history of Eight-Man football in Iowa. A victory like Friday's was one that Sears said the Cowboys have long needed.
“It was good for our community, because we haven't had that trademark win on the football field in a number of years,” Sears said. “We've won a lot of football games, but we haven't had that signature win.
“Under the circumstances of the anticipation in the week prior to the game and the way the game played out, it was pretty emotional. Watching the kids and the crowd react, it was probably one of the most celebrated wins we've had in 15 years.”
The Cowboys have done well under Sears. They have qualified for the playoffs a handful of times, but have yet to advance from the first round of postseason play. In 2011, Sidney lost 50-14 at Glidden-Ralston.
“We worked really hard after the loss to Glidden-Ralston,” senior quarterback Noah McKeever said. “That kind of motivated us to not let that happen again. Everybody hurt after that. Everybody expected to go further.”
Sears said this group has likely worked harder than any other he's had in Sidney. Building around four returning starters and team captains — Thorne, McKeever, Ben Klinkebiel and Mason Sheldon — the coaching staff believed the Cowboys had the pieces for a successful season.
“At the end of last season, we thought we would be in a good situation,” he said. “Then when you watched them work over the winter, your optimism just kept rising.”
The players got extra inspiration, Sears added, from the team they beat on Friday night.
“That team nine miles up the road set the bar,” Sears said. “Everybody saw what Fremont-Mills has done in the weight room and how that transferred on the football field. Our kids are competitive enough that they bought in. Fremont-Mills helped us by the standard they set.”
Sidney is bigger, stronger and faster this year. Its offensive lineup includes a dual-threat quarterback in McKeever, speedy tailbacks Nicholas Shipley and Antonio Rodriguez, a hammer at fullback in Thorne and quality receivers in Chris Osborne and Sheldon.
Six-foot-3, 275-pound nose guard Zane Burge anchors the middle of a solid defense that not only stopped Fremont-Mills four times inside the 5 on the final series, but also denied the Knights on all five of their 2-point conversion attempts Friday.
“It was probably the greatest feeling I've had in any athletic event,” said McKeever, who made the final tackle in the game. “We can enjoy it, but we've kind of got to put it behind us and focus on next week. We don't want to slip up. We have goals to accomplish.”
The Cowboys have three games remaining. If they win out, they will be the district champions and play a first-round playoff game at home. If not, Sears fears they may be the odd team out in a potential three-way tiebreaker with F-M and CAM that would send them on the road again.
That thought quickly brought perspective to Friday's big win. It didn't even clinch the district title.
“All it did was kept it a possibility,” Sears said. “We can still finish first or third.”
No matter how the district race shakes out, Sidney and No. 8 Fremont-Mills will both be among the favorites in the quarter of the Eight-Man bracket that will also include No. 4 Exira-EHK, CAM and Glidden-Ralston. All five have been ranked at some point this season.
The Cowboys are vying to be the next team from the Corner Conference to make a run toward a title.
Prior to the Eight-Man era, only one team from the small-school league in southwest Iowa (Hamburg in 1972) reached a state championship game. Since Eight-Man play began in 2000, four Corner schools (Farragut, Essex, Stanton and F-M) have reached the Eight-Man final. The latter two won championships.
Sidney's cowboy, who scored the game-winning touchdown Friday, hopes it's his team's turn now.
“After we beat F-M, it kind of sank in for me that we have a chance of being that top team this year,” Thorne said. “I think it opened a lot of people's eyes.”