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TERRY HERSOM COLUMN: X's deserve a thundering ovation

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SIOUX CITY – It was such a suspenseful Monday afternoon for the Sioux City Explorers, you might have thought Alfred Hitchcock had written the script.

The final day of the 2021 regular season dawned with Cleburne leading the wild card chase in the American Association’s South Division, sporting a 54-45 record.

Close behind at 53-45 were the Explorers, having rain cancel a series finale last Thursday in Fargo to prevent them from playing all 100 games on their schedule for the first time in 10 seasons since the league went to a 100-game slate in 2011.

Lincoln sat another one-half game behind at 53-46 heading into one last game against the Houston Apollos, who at 16-83 had charted the poorest record in Association history while playing their entire season on the road. Only one team had ever been remotely close to this and it was another team without a home, the Salina Stockade, finishing 18-82 in 2017.

All six teams in the South were paired up in Labor Day matchups that were all early afternoon contests. So, the zany wild-card duel was going down to the wire in a manner of baseball that no professional teams at any level may ever have seen.

Given how the length of games can vary greatly, it was even more remarkable that play at three different sites all ended within the space of six minutes. That’s right, SIX minutes.

At 4:16 p.m., the Explorers failed to cash in on a couple of late scoring threats, falling 3-2 in a road game with the Sioux Falls Canaries. The X’s had previously won 10 of 13 meetings with seven victories in a row against their I-29 rivals. This unlikely verdict left Manager Steve Montgomery’s team at 53-46, almost certain to be overtaken by Lincoln.

It was 4:18 p.m., just two minutes later, when Houston, losers 11 times in 13 previous meetings with the Saltdogs, completed a stunning 2-0 triumph at Haymarket Park.

Just that fast, the Explorers leap-frogged Lincoln, tumbling to a final and season-ending 53-47 record. The clock read 4:22 p.m. when the division leading Kansas City Monarchs took down Cleburne 4-1 in a game that became meaningless with the X’s defeat.

Instead of returning to Sioux City and disbursing to their homes all over America, the team bus made a pit stop in Sioux City and then headed south to Cleburne, a 777-mile haul that makes the Railroaders the most distant rival in a 12-team league.

The winner there tonight will move into a best-of-five league semifinal series against the Kansas City Monarchs, who ran away with the division championship, posting a league-best 69-31 mark. Meanwhile, Milwaukee (59-41) will play a one-and-done in Fargo (61-38), with Chicago (63-37) awaiting the winner in another best-of-five clash.

That long journey for the Explorers may extend the season only one more game, but it means Montgomery’s teams have reached post-season play five of their last six seasons. That feat is more notable for a franchise that had earned playoff appearances four times in the 22 seasons leading up to this stretch.

None of Mongo’s playoff teams had battled more adversity than this bunch. They deserve a thundering ovation.

HAWKEYES’ TRIUMPH

A short time after rain moved through the Iowa City area, 18th-ranked Iowa turned in a rousing season debut Saturday, routing No. 17-rated Indiana.

It was the seventh straight Big Ten win for the Hawkeyes, who won their final six contests in an abbreviated Big Ten-only season last fall. Now, Coach Kirk Ferentz brings his team into Jack Trice Stadium in Ames to face an arch-rival Iowa State squad that was No. 7 before slipping two spots to No. 9 in Tuesday’s AP poll after a 16-10 escape from Northern Iowa

Iowa, vaulting to 10th in the rankings, has won the last five meetings with the Cyclones and will attempt to extend a non-conference winning streak to 18. The 3:30 p.m. showdown will be nationally televised on ABC.

The Draft Kings Sportsbook has the Hawks as a 3.5-point favorite. My best advice is not to gamble at all. If you do, I’d predict Iowa will cover that spread, but betting against my opinions has proven to be a wise choice in the past. Your call.

KINNICK REFLECTIONS

Defense appears to be Iowa’s strong suit as it has been more often than not in the program’s 22 previous seasons under Ferentz.

The entire secondary returns from last season and Riley Moss had two of his team’s three pass interceptions, returning them both for touchdowns of 30 and 55 yards. That gives the Hawks 67 interceptions since 2017, which ranks first in the country.

Junior running back Tyler Goodson was impressive, which he’s been the last two seasons. The offensive line will likely hold up its strong tradition.

Council Bluffs native Caleb Shudak, who waited five years for his shot as the placekicker, looked more than equal to the task, hitting all four of his extra points and both of his two field goal attempts. Similarly, sophomore Tory, succeeding a fellow Australian, averaged a hefty 49.5 yards on six punts.

It was delightful to see people in most of those Kinnick Stadium seats that sat empty last year, but I wish they didn’t boo when the visiting Hoosiers came out onto Duke Slater Field. The fans should be grateful enough to demonstrate better sportsmanship and focus on the good things.

One of those, I might add, was a newly inducted class selected for the Iowa Athletic Hall of Fame. I couldn’t believe it hadn’t included the great Ed Podolak until now. Then again, it still does not include basketball star Don Nelson, who evidently doesn’t qualify since he didn’t finish work on his degree.

Former Journal sports editor Terry Hersom can be reached via e-mail at terrencewhersom@gmail.com.

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