Inspired by legendary coach in cancer fight, West Hancock wins first state title in 23 years

The Eagles were motivated to battle for their head coach.

Posted: Nov 21, 2019 11:05 PM
Updated: Nov 22, 2019 6:16 AM

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa – Thursday afternoon at the UNI-Dome was an emotional one for the West Hancock Eagles who competed for their third state title.

Moments after the game, senior Tate Hagen was at a loss for words when reflecting on the season.

“It’s amazing. It’s incomparable to how this feels right now. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

For the first time in more than two decades, the Eagles are once again state champions. They defeated Grundy Center in the Class A title game 21-17.

West Hancock started out with a 7-0 deficit but quickly responded. Coach Mark Sanger referred to it as a lot of ups and downs.

“It was a hard-fought game, a heck of a football game, an emotional roller coaster if you will,” Sanger said. “A lot of ups and downs and not so much in between.”

Hagen went for another big day on the gridiron with three touchdowns for a gain of 233 yards, helping the Eagles fly to victory.

“Have you ever heard the saying dance with the girl you brought?” Sanger asked the media. “I don’t want to call him a girl – that’s not what I’m doing but he’s been our workhorse for three years and why wouldn’t you put it in his hands if you need to get the game back to where you need it and he didn’t disappoint.”

Another difference maker in Thursday’s game was the team’s 12th man who showed up in full force wearing their red Sanger Strong shirts.

“It feels amazing. Everyone that comes out is incredible,” Tanner Thompson said. “I never thought that many people could ever come from a little town like ours but they say football is everything for us and it shows.”

While West Hancock will continue to celebrate and remember this day for many years to come, Cole Kelly is already looking forward to next year.

“This will mean a lot because of Sanger Strong and it just means a lot more because of 23, 23, 23. We’ve got to keep the thing going but it’d be nice if we can get back down here and win it again next year.”

This One’s For Sanger

If you were at the UNI-Dome and looked into the suites above the north endzone, you’d have found Coach Bob Sanger smiling away.

Even as he continues to battle an ugly disease, he never lets it get the best of him which is one of the many reasons why he was selected as the 2019 recipient of the Walt Fiegel Coaching With Character Award.

“I’m about as happy as anybody could ever be but I’m here to tell you, there’s nobody in this building happier than he is. That I can guarantee you,” said his son Mark.

This season has been difficult for his father and the players.

“I tell you it’s devastating,” Bob Sanger said. “52 years I’ve spent on the sidelines being with the kids, going to practice, and doing all of that stuff. It’s really tough to be away from it.”

But Coach couldn’t resist making the pilgrimage to the practice field or to Cedar Falls for that matter, just so long as he got to see his team win a state championship.

“He’s totally involved because he gives everybody advice and everything,” said Cole Kelly. “He’d come up in his little Ranger and watch practices, critique us, and tell us, ‘hey, you need to do this, to do that.’ Yeah, he’s very much a part of the program so it’s just one of those deals where he’s always been there and he always will be.”

While faithful Eagles fans made the trip to support their beloved Eagles, they were also there to support Coach Sanger. Though he’s not been on the sidelines, he remains an inspiration.

“We’ve just been playing inspired football all season long, working our butts off for him. That’s all it was the entire year,” said Hagen.

“My dad, the first thing he would say is that it’s not about him.” Mark Sanger added. “But, you know what? He’s the one that prepared us, all of us assistant coaches to be able to do the things we do coaching down the stretch. We learned from the best and he’s one of the best and we’re just trying to carry it on. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

With his resolve and sense of humor intact, Coach Sanger is hopeful he can rejoin his galvanized gridiron warriors next season.

“You know, it turned out so good this year. I can’t feel too bad,” he laughed. “Hopefully another year and I can get going again.”

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