Like The Dark Knight was to Gotham City, Dustan Van Loon was the hero the Clarke football team deserved Friday night.
Unlike The Dark Knight, however, Van Loon was also the hero Clarke needed at the time.
Clarinda Academy had momentum on its side in a tie ballgame with 1:25 left on the clock, and the ball at its own 46-yardline.
Academy quarterback Braddley Lehman took the snap on the first play of the drive and pitched the ball to the right toward his running back.
But, a blitzing Van Loon, playing the hero back position for the Clarke defense, picked the ball out of midair and sprinted 36 yards for a touchdown, putting Clarke up 34-28 with 1:16 to play.
A 2-point conversion run by Dalton Sweeney made it 36-28, which held up over the final 1:16 to be the final score on a warm, humid night that required multiple official’s time outs for water breaks.
“Dalton Sweeney told me to play the field side of the ball, and then coach (Brian) Reece called a hero back blitz, so I blitzed,” Van Loon explained. “And then I saw that the pitch came, so I just reached my hand up and grabbed it, and I ran it back for a touchdown.”
Van Loon outran a pack of Clarinda Academy players chasing him down from behind, sending the Clarke sideline and cheering section into a frenzy.
“I was just like, ‘please don’t let them catch me,’” Van Loon said. “I was looking at the goal line, and I was like, ‘let me get there.’ It was a great feeling. I got in there and I just felt like a hero.”
“Brian Reece just made a great call blitzing our hero back in there,” Clarke head coach Michael Kline said. “Dustan did a great job of catching it — and Dustan had a good game overall for us tonight — caught it and ran it in for the touchdown.
“As I said in the preseason, I think God has big things planned for us, and I certainly looked to the sky after that one,” Kline continued. “It kind of fell right into our lap. We’ll take any blessings He wants to shower upon us. Dustan did a great job of knowing his role, got in there, caught the ball and ran it back.”
The Clarke defense still had to make one more stop to earn the victory, however. Clarinda Academy picked up 37 yards on two plays to move the ball to the Clarke 23 with :46 remaining in the game.
Lehman completed a pass to Maurice Dawkins, who was swarmed by a host of Clarke defenders.
But, it was sophomore Jake Leeps who came flying in at the end of the play with a hard hit, knocking the ball loose and Clarke recovered to seal the victory.
After turning the ball over on its second offensive play of the game, Clarke quickly turned things around and got out to a fast start.
The ensuing Academy drive went three-and-out, and junior Gordon Witt blocked the punt and recovered the ball, giving the Indians good field position.
Sweeney took advantage, scoring on a 22-yard bootleg run to his left.
Sweeney added another touchdown run with 5:28 to go in the second quarter on a 1-yard keeper. After the 2-point conversion, the Indians led 14-0.
The ensuing kickoff was muffed by Kadarius Coleman in the corner, who then picked up the ball, ran across the field and up the sideline for an 88-yard kickoff return, cutting the lead to 14-8.
But Clarke methodically chewed up the final 5:13 of the half, marching 69 yards for a touchdown, as Sweeney ran the ball in off the left side from 11 yards out.
The Indians took a 22-8 lead into halftime, and quickly extended that lead to 28-8 as Sweeney hooked up with Junior Morales for a 76-yard touchdown on the second play of the second half.
“High school football is all about momentum, and you want to keep it as long as you can,” Kline said. “We had it for a good chunk of the first half and had it for the beginning of the second half.”
But, momentum shifted when Dawkins picked off a Sweeney pass late in the third quarter.
“Their free safety made a heck of a play on an interception and stole the momentum right from our hands, and they ran with it for a while,” Kline said.
Coleman punched the ball into the endzone with :18 remaining in the third quarter to make it 28-14.
Stephen Dean scored a two-yard touchdown with 6:37 left in the game to cut Clarke’s lead to 28-20. And then Lehman made a cutback at the line of scrimmage, freeing him to run 84 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 28-28 with 2:31 remaining in the game.
“Tonight was strange — 28-8 and then 28-28 was not a good feeling,” Kline said. “I did not like that feeling at all. But it was exciting. You never give back a win. I’d much rather learn from a win than learn from a loss, and there’s a lot to learn from tonight.”
Kline said he felt like his offensive line played well over the course of the first half, setting the stage and paving the way for the Clarke offense to move the ball.
“I think the five guys — Drew Wishon, Nathan Bair, Damon Helgevold, Lane Carson and Caleb Hanson — are our five guys,” he said. “They’re the guys that are going to help us be successful this year. Tonight, they were a big part of this win. They helped us move the ball in the first half. We have room to improve, but they’re going to be very important for us this year.”
Kline also commended Sweeney and Van Loon for their play on both sides of the ball.
Sweeney finished the game 6-of-16 passing for 131 yards and one touchdown, and also ran for 46 yards and three touchdowns on nine carries. Van Loon led the team with 51 yards on 17 carries.
Defensively, the Indians were led by Witt, who accumulated 15 tackles and recovered two fumbles to go with his blocked punt.
The Indians, now 1-0, travel to West Central Valley on Friday. Game time is scheduled for 7 p.m.
Clarke won a wild 33-26 game over the Wildcats last year, but Kline doesn’t see things being any easier for the Indians this time around.
Both Rob and Chris Irlmeier return for the Wildcats, providing a powerful running tandem.
“They’re very tough runners,” Kline said. “Not very big, but they run hard, so we need to work on tackling.”
As for the win over Clarinda Academy, Van Loon said it was a good feeling.
“I feel like we put on a show for the community, for ourselves,” he said. “They came out here to watch us play. They believe in us, and we didn’t let them down. It feels great.”
Van Loon had only one other thing to add about the win.