EXIRA, Iowa — In their first two seasons together in 11-man football, Exira and Elk Horn-Kimballton proved to be quick studies.
After the Spartans lost in the first round of the playoffs in 2010, they really shined last season. They went unbeaten in District 8 of Class A and won their first playoff game before bowing out to Bedford in the second round.
Then came the news that Exira-EHK would be returning to Eight-Man football this season.
“There was a little bit of discouragement, I’m not going to lie to you,” Spartans coach Tom Petersen said. “Some of the kids wanted to stay 11-man because they liked the game a little bit more.”
Winning has made that discouragement a thing of the past. Exira-EHK (7-0, 6-0), rated fourth in the state and first in western Iowa by The World-Herald, can clinch at least a share of the District 8 title with a home win over Ar-We-Va (2-5, 2-4) on Friday at 7 p.m.
“Coming back from 11-man has been a plus,” said Petersen, who has 27 on his roster. “It opened up the kids’ eyes quite a bit more — 11-man football did — and it’s made us a better team, without a doubt. They fought it a little bit, but they understood some of the things that they needed to buy into, and they’ve done that.”
One key reason the Spartans are averaging 57 points per game is that they can put three terrific skill-position players on the field. Sophomore quarterback Drew Peppers (5-foot-11, 170 pounds) and junior running backs Nick Peppers (6-0, 185) and Trey Sander (5-11, 190) are all good enough to be the focal point of an opposition. Together, they’re a nightmare for a defensive coordinator.
Sander has rushed for 883 yards with an 8.9 average and 18 touchdowns. Drew Peppers has run for 773 with a 7.2 average and 12 scores and thrown for 401 yards and five TDs. Older brother Nick has 534 rushing yards, an 8.8 average and 13 TDs to his credit. Nick’s been nursing an ankle injury since a 40-20 week-five win over Glidden-Ralston, which has limited his playing time considerably.
Defensively, Nick Peppers, who has started at middle linebacker since his freshman year, is a tackling machine.
“You talk about a kid that’s got a nose for the football,” Petersen said. “A special, special player, to be honest with you. Him being on the field, we’re a different football team.”
Nick Peppers, who will return this week, said it’s been tough being on the sidelines. But he knows it’s more important to be 100 percent for the playoffs because the Spartans have big dreams.
“I think we’re definitely on the right track to get to our goal,” he said. “We still have a long ways to go before we get there.”
Sander, a state wrestling qualifier last year, has put on 22 pounds of muscle since last season. Now he’s breaking tackles and turning short gains into big ones.
“Trey’s a horse,” Petersen said. “He’s just extremely difficult to bring down.”
Drew Peppers earned plenty of varsity time as a freshman, but not at quarterback. He added 24 pounds through weight training and has blossomed in his first year as a starter at that position.
“He’s come a long way from camp,” Petersen said. “He’s made us look like we know what we’re doing.”
Drew Peppers played quarterback in youth leagues in Atlantic, so he had some experience there. He didn’t understand the attention to detail necessary at the varsity level.
“I didn’t know there was that much responsibility, and things that I had to know about quarterbacking,” he said. “But I found out.”
The Spartan backfield benefits from an experienced offensive line. Center Brady Drees (6-2, 296) anchors the line, flanked by guards Beck Benton (5-10, 180) and Cody Jens (5-11, 200), and tackles Kodie Haas (5-9, 200) and Joe Harris (5-9, 190). All are seniors except Harris, a junior.
“They deserve a lot more credit than they get,” Sander said.
Drees has dropped 30 pounds and possesses college potential.
“It helps when there’s a 300-pounder in front of you,” Drew Peppers said. “It makes me more comfortable back there.”
Retired former state champion coach Gaylord Schelling of Atlantic has made several trips to Exira in the last couple of years. He speaks with Petersen weekly about his team.
And with that team, Petersen said it’s not necessary to bring up the UNI-Dome every day.
“Is that in the back of your mind? Absolutely it is,” he said. “Kids want to make the Dome. All kids are wanting to do that. That’s the mind-set they have. I want them to be like that.
“We don’t ever want our kids to be content with being average. We talk about that all the time.”
Contact the writer:
402-444-1055, email@example.com, twitter.com/KWhiteOWH