CEDAR FALLS, Iowa -- Those three early losses were evidently just North Polk's way of misleading future opponents.
Rebounding from a tough start against a challenging schedule, the unranked Comets are headed to Iowa's Class 2A state football championship game after shocking seventh-ranked Sheldon with a dominating 42-0 triumph in a semifinal playoff matchup in the UNI-Dome here Saturday afternoon.
Lucas Hadaway passed for three first-half scores, two of them to his younger brother, Jacob, and fullback Noah Pickard ignited a game-icing third-quarter rampage as North Polk earned a shot at top-ranked Iowa City Regina in Saturday's 1:30 p.m. 2A final.
"Our first five games, every one of those teams was a ranked opponent either before or after or at the time we played them,'' said Rob Sinclair, whose team has won eight in a row since a 2-3 start.
"We had a pretty tough schedule early on, but we just focused on getting better in practice every single day,'' said Pickard, a 6-2, 200-pound junior who rushed for 118 yards and simply bulldozed his way into the end zone for a 21-yard touchdown just 15 seconds into the second half.
Leading only by a 14-0 margin in the closing seconds of the first half, North Polk made Sheldon pay for a fourth-down gamble, taking over at the Orabs 35 with only 23 seconds left in the period.
Pickard ran for seven yards before Lucas Hadaway, who completed nine of 10 passes for 120 yards in the first half, hit a 26-yarder to his brother, a sophomore. The senior QB then flipped a two-yarder to Willie Ebert for a TD with just eight seconds left before the recess.
That made it a 21-0 cushion and the Comets needed just over seven minutes of the third quarter to double it up, cashing in on three Sheldon fumbles -- two on kickoffs and the other on just the second scrimmage play of the half for the Orabs.
It was nothing short of a nightmare for a Sheldon team that came into the contest 11-1, avenging its only previous defeat, a 13-12 squeaker, with a similar 7-6 win over district rival Sioux Center in a second-round playoff game.
Coach Matt Meendering's team followed that up with a 29-19 quarterfinal win over previously unbeaten South Central Calhoun, putting Sheldon in the semifinals for the second time in five years.
"I said early in the week I think (North Polk is) one of the most improved teams in the state,'' said Meendering, who is also the high school principal. "They did an outstanding job with those kids. They got them running hard, being physical and they had us on our heels that whole first quarter.
"It's unfortunate that it had to end in the way it did, but it was a great season for our kids. It's going to hurt for about 24 hours and then we'll realize what we just did.''
Pickard came into the game with 1,464 rushing yards while senior tailback Cody Moeckly had 1,099.
"I think we grew up a lot,'' said Sinclair, an IHSAA hall of famer who starred at running back for Garwin GMG's 1987 Class A state champs. "We decided we were going to start practicing better and playing better. It was a progression throughout the season.''
After non-district losses to Eagle Grove (39-13) and Roland-Story (24-0), Sinclair's team lost only to champion West Marshall in district play, a 27-26 nailbiter, and the Comets avenged that with a 21-0 quarterfinal playoff win.
"We felt like we could have won those (early) games if we had another shot at it and West Marshall was a great example,'' said Pickard, whose father, Tom Pickard III, was an All-American wrestler at Iowa State, finishing fourth at 158 pounds in the 1980 NCAA Tournament.
Sheldon was limited to 101 yards rushing and 81 passing, getting a good chunk of its real estate after the game went to the mercy rule, with the continuous clock set in motion after Lucas Hadaway's one-yard QB keeper made it 35-0 with 8:26 left in the third quarter.
North Polk 42, Sheldon 0
North Polk 7 14 21 0 -- 42
Sheldon 0 0 0 0 -- 0
NP: Jacob Hadaway 10 pass from Lucas Hadaway (Andrew Wampler kick) 7:05
NP: Willie Ebert 25 pass from L. Hadaway (Wampler kick) 5:57
NP: J. Hadaway 26 pass from L. Hadaway (Wampler kick) 0:08
NP: Noah Pickard 21 run (Wampler kick) 11:45
NP: L. Hadaway 1 run (Wampler kick) 8:26
NP: Cody Moeckly 3 run (Wampler kick) 4:48
First downs 14 8
Rushes-yards 40-188 32-101
Passing yards 120 81
Passes 9-11-0 3-12-0
Total plays-yards 51-308 44-182
Punts-average 4-46.8 4-39.0
Fumbles-lost 0-0 6-4
Penalties-yards 4-25 2-10
RUSHING: North Polk -- Noah Pickard 19-110, Cody Moeckly 11-42, Cody Whiet 7-29, Lucas Hadaway 2-5, Justin Christensen 1-2. Sheldon -- Michael Lovan 8-27, Trevor Johnson 3-23, Cody Hatting 2-18, Toby Lo 3-12, Blake Koedam 6-9, Chris Balster 5-3, Michael Schilling 1-3, Grant Weaver 1-3, Travis Nelson 1-2, Josh Gorter 1-1, Matt Dykstra 1-0.
PASSING: North Polk -- Lucas Hadaway 9-11-0--120. Sheldon -- Chris Balster 3-12-0--81.
RECEIVING: North Polk -- Willie Ebert 4-48, Jacob Hadaway 2-36, Noah Pickard 1-16, Doug Hale 1-13, Sam Pickard 1-7. Sheldon -- Ray Scott 2-52, Jordan Dykstra 1-29.