Adam Wessels brings a sense of comfort to Dubuque Senior.
Nursing a two-point lead over city rival Dubuque Hempstead on Friday night at Dalzell Field, the Rams’ senior kicker delivered in the clutch. Wessels drilled 35- and 36-yard field goals right down the uprights in the closing minutes, the final coming with 2:12 to play, as the Rams never trailed but held on to survive the Mustangs, 36-28, to reclaim the A.Y. McDonald Trophy as city champions.
“He’s been huge for us,” Senior coach Dale Ploessl said of his kicker. “He’s made some field goals for us that have really made the difference for us in the game. He made the difference again for us tonight with those kicks. It was huge and everybody contributed.”
Cain McWilliams led the Rams (5-2, 2-1 Iowa Class 4A District 3) with 26 carries for 168 yards and two touchdowns, while adding five receptions for 45 yards. Kendrick Watkins-Hogue caught seven passes for 98 yards and a touchdown, and quarterback Tom Casey threw for 188 yards.
“We knew this game was going to have a lot of emotion, and we believed we could win,” McWilliams said. “Kendrick has really been stepping up the last few weeks and we figured they would try to target him on defense, so we knew we’d have to run the ball to win this game.”
Aidan Dunne led the Mustangs (2-5, 0-3) with 166 yards passing and another 47 rushing with three total touchdowns. Kamari Stanford rushed 13 times for 106 yards and score, and wide receiver Jackson Ostrander caught four balls for 130 yards and two TDs in the shootout.
“There’s no quit in this group of kids,” Hempstead interim coach Brian Kuhle said. “We fight every single week and I’m proud of their effort.”
In just three plays and the first 42 seconds of the second half, Senior turned a three-point lead into a 30-14 advantage. Watkins-Hogue broke a 73-yard run on the first play, then Hunter Preston scored on a 7-yard TD run the next play. Senior surprised Hempstead with the ensuing squib kick and recovered, and McWilliams swept around the left end for a 32-yard touchdown run on the next play.
“We wanted to come out with a bang right away,” McWilliams said. “Coach just talked about if we were going to win this game, it starts right away in the third quarter after halftime, and that’s what we did. We came out and won it.”
The Mustangs wouldn’t relent, as Dunne connected with Ostrander on a 27-yard touchdown pass that cut the lead to 30-20 with 3:59 to go in the third, as the conversion pass failed. To open the fourth, Hempstead pinned the Rams at their own 1-yard line and when it came time to punt, Senior intentionally snapped it out of the back of the end zone for a safety to make it 30-22 with 11:49 to play.
Dunne’s 18-yard touchdown run with 8:16 remaining drew the Mustangs within 30-28, but Dunne’s conversion run to tie it failed. The Rams staved off Hempstead from there by turning them over on downs twice and Wessels’ field goals with 4:06 to play and then with 2:12 to go.
“Crazy game, back and forth with big plays and that’s what you get with city games,” Ploessl said. “Obviously there was a lot of emotion in this game for both teams. It feels wonderful to come out on top. Just an unbelievable effort by both teams.”
The Rams took the lead on their first possession of the game, traveling 72 yards in 13 plays and eating 5:44 off the clock. Hempstead’s defense stiffened when Senior had first-and-goal at the 6-yard line, and the Rams settled for a 23-yard field goal by Wessels to take a 3-0 lead at the 4:17 mark of the first quarter.
After a quick three-and-out by the Mustangs, Senior scored the game’s first touchdown on an eight-play drive, with McWilliams racking up 41 yards and scoring on a 3-yard touchdown run on the first play of the second quarter to extend the Rams’ lead to 10-0.
“Cain made some huge plays,” Ploessl said. “He got out to the edge, he got up the field, and just had a fantastic game. He had a huge, huge game for us.”
With things on the verge of getting out of hand, the Hempstead offense found pay dirt on a big play as Stanford broke loose around the left end and darted nearly untouched on a 58-yard touchdown run to pull the Mustangs within three with 9:39 left in the quarter.
The Rams responded, as Watkins-Hogue struck with the biggest play of the first half. Casey slid up in the pocket to buy some time, then tossed a beauty to Watkins-Hogue over the middle for a 59-yard touchdown hookup that pushed Senior back out to a 17-7 lead with 6:38 until halftime.
After the teams traded punts, the Mustangs capped a pivotal drive with a score right before halftime, traveling 58 yards in just 2:05. After Dunne connected with Ostrander on a leaping 44-yard completion to the Rams’ 14, two plays later Dunne rolled to his right on third down and drilled a dime to Ostrander in the back corner of the end zone for a 16-yard score that cut Senior’s lead to 17-14 at the break.
“We’re constantly talking about the momentum swings in games and how we have to rise through the peaks and valleys of football,” Kuhle said. “Making sure we’re staying positive the whole time and you can never drop your head. You never know when the next play is going to be a game-changer.”