Cedar Rapids Xavier got a late defensive stop, denying West Delaware on a two-point conversion attempt with 29 seconds remaining in the contest, to preserve a 23-21 win in a game between two highly-regarded teams, at Brown Field, Sept. 3.

Xavier, ranked No. 6 in Class 4A, improved to 2-0 in the young season, while Class 3A, No 3 West Delaware fell to 1-1, as this one lived up to the pregame hype.

“That was a great football game with two really good football teams,” said coach Doug Winkowitsch. “We got a lot better tonight. I just told our guys that’s our focus these first few weeks, and we got a whole lot better tonight.”

The Saints got on the board early when Thomas Sundell picked off Kyle Cole on the game’s third play from scrimmage and advanced to the West Delaware 14. Michael Cunningham’s fourth-down touchdown run from two yards followed by a PAT kick from Trystan Vasquez made it 7-0 at the 8:30 mark of the first period.

The Hawks got things going early in the second quarter and went 74 yards in 13 plays to even it up on Will Ward’s five-yard TD scamper with 7:13 remaining in the half. Conner Funk’s PAT kick made it 7-7.

Xavier took a 10-7 lead to the break when Vasquez converted a 32-yard field goal with 30 seconds remaining in the half.

The Saints stretched the lead to 17-7 on the opening drive of the third, and Cunningham rambled 21 yards for a score on fourth and one to make it 23-7 at the 5:51 mark of the period, but when the Hawk defense blocked the extra-point kick, it stayed a two-score game.

West Delaware answered with a gritty 12-play, 77-yard drive, with Cole scoring from three yards at the 2:24 mark of the third. The blocked PAT loomed large when Cole picked up the two-point conversion to bring the Hawks within eight at 23-15.

That’s where it stayed until the Hawks forced a Xavier punt and took over at their own 20 with 4:53 remaining. A 24-yard first-down run by Wyatt Voelker and a pair of Cole -o-Ward completions moved the ball into Xavier territory.

A six-yard gain by Cole on fourth and five moved the ball to the Saints’ 26 with 2:00 to go, and WD advanced to the 15 with a new set of downs and 46 seconds on the clock.

After a first down incompletion, the Hawks dug deep into the playbook and pulled off a stunner to get within two. Cole handed off to Funk on a reverse headed to the right and headed to the left side of the end zone, where Funk’s toss was on the money and Cole made a terrific catch for six.

That’s when the Saints’ defense made the play of the game, stopping Cole just short on the two-point attempt to preserve the win.

“These kids fought to the end and I thought our coaching staff did a tremendous job at halftime. You know, it’s one of those situations where you look back at that two-point conversion and I could have called about 10 different things there, but hindsight is always 20/20,” said Winkowitsch. ”But we’d been hitting it right there and gave it to one of our best kids. Sometimes that happens. But we got better and that’s the focus. We’re going to continue to make strides as we move forward.”

Nobody likes to lose this kind of game, but this one had a playoff-like feel and it’s only week two.

“We saw these guys fighting to the end and we found some things. We’ve got some kids with a lot of guts and we definitely improved,” said Winkowitsch. “We’re going to go back to work and look through this and make our guys even better. We’ll pick out those positives and negatives and try to get ready for the next one.”

Coming back and having an opportunity to win against a team of Xavier’s caliber speaks volumes of this West Delaware squad.

“These guys believe in each other and believe in us. They believe in the system and they just hung in there. Our kids played a really good football game,” Winkowitsch said. “Our whole goal tonight was to make sure we walked off the field knowing we had gotten better and that’s exactly what happened.”

West Delaware statistics against Xavier: passing — Cole 5-of-11 for 48 yards, Funk 1-of-1 for 15 and one TD; rushing — Voelker 17-for-114, Cole 29-for-103 and one TD, Funk 2-for-18, Ward 2-for-7 and one TD; receiving — Ward 4-for-36, Cole 1-for-15 and one TD, Funk 1-for-12; punting — Funk 3-for-98; PAT kicks — Funk one; tackles — Voelker 11.5, Jadyn Peyton seven, Isaac Fettkether and Raub Loecke 5.5, Logan Peyton five, Payton Lewin 3.5, Lukas Meyer, Cody Monaghan and Luke Kehrli three, Funk two, Cole and Blake Engel 1.5, Will Halverson, Sawyer Falck and Xander Zack one.