In its season-opener, Fremont-Mills — a team with zero seniors on its roster — lost 62-12 to a program that has never reached the playoffs on its own.
Not exactly the way you’d draw it up for opening night.
But the Knights learned plenty from their setback to a talented West Harrison squad. They rolled up their sleeves and went back to the practice field, determined to improve.
The last five weeks have been something to behold.
Fremont-Mills outscored its next five opponents by an average of 49-18, including last week’s 28-17 Eight-Man, District 8 win over previously unbeaten Sidney. F-M owns sole possession of first place in the district with a 4-0 mark.
The Knights (5-1) return to The World-Herald’s western Iowa ratings at No. 5 this week. The ratings leaders remain Sioux City Heelan (Class 4-A/3-A), Carroll Kuemper (Class 2-A/1-A/A) and Exira-EHK (Eight-Man).
Fremont-Mills coach Jeremy Christiansen said the loss to West Harrison was a humbling experience for a program less than two years removed from a state championship.
“That was a long bus ride home,” he said. “I think it helped them understand where they were at that time and where they had to get. And they’re still trying to get to that point.”
The Knights certainly are on the right path. They held a Sidney offense averaging 338.8 total yards to 168. Christiansen said after analyzing the Cowboys’ explosive attack, his staff knew it was imperative that it shorten the game.
“We ran a stopwatch and used every second of the play clock that we could,” he said. “I could kind of tell all week long there was a little bit of hesitation. All year we were talking about, we want to run more plays.”
Trailing 11-8 at the half, Fremont-Mills’ patient, physical brand of football began to take effect. The Knights dominated the second half, scoring three straight touchdowns to lead 28-11 before Sidney scored in the closing moments.
“After the game they were like, ‘Gosh, that worked!’ ” Christiansen said. “The light clicked on.”
Exemplifying Fremont-Mills’ smash-mouth style is 6-foot-2, 230-pound junior running back/linebacker Spencer Phillips. In the Sidney win, he carried 34 times for 182 yards, caught a 14-yard touchdown pass and made 14 tackles.
“Spencer did a great job of being physical at the point of attack, which he’s done all year for us,” Christiansen said. For the season, Phillips has rushed for 977 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Junior Mackenzy Lang (5-8, 150) relieved some of the pressure on Phillips in the Sidney win, carrying 11 times for 92 yards, catching a pair of touchdown passes and making 16 tackles.
“He’s done a great job for us, especially on the edge in our 3-4 defense the last two or three weeks,” Christiansen said.
Sophomore quarterback Jason Rusten (5-8, 130) has been an efficient signal caller, completing 35 of 63 (55.6 percent) for 648 yards and 14 touchdowns with just one interception. The lone pick came last week in a “third-and-a-mile” situation, and functioned as a punt, the F-M coach said.
“He’s done a great job playing within himself,” Christiansen said.
Sophomore linebacker Colton Dodson ranks second on the team in tackles and made some key plays last week, Christiansen said. He snuffed out a screen that could have been a big gain, and broke up a pass that also could have gone the distance.
Junior Haydn Meier played his best game at the noseguard position last week, his coach said, and freshman Parker Powers has been among the tackle leaders throughout the season.
There are 12 senior boys at Fremont-Mills this year. For various reasons, none are on the team now.
“Our juniors have stepped up and done a great job leading,” Christiansen said.
The Knights barely bear any resemblance to the team that took the field Aug. 30. But with three district games remaining, they’re not planning to rest on their laurels.
“It wasn’t very long into our conversation afterwards (Friday) that somebody said, ‘We’ve got to keep going. This isn’t everything,’ ” Christiansen said.