The night of June 26, 2018, an EF-3 tornado struck Eureka at 7:21, and in a city of about 2,500 people, 175 structures were damaged, including 10 destroyed homes. Eight people were injured.
The tornado ripped up the sod on the football field. The scoreboard was wrapped around itself. A goal post was torn down, and an entire alternate gym was demolished.
Eureka was forced to play nine road games last autumn. Their homecoming was at Douglass. Their senior night was at Cherryvale. They were forced to practice on a playground north of the high school.
“That tornado definitely made us stronger,” senior linebacker Zach Hare said. “We capitalized after all the losses we had last year. It was our coach’s first year last year, and he lost his field. Overcoming that adversity is a great feeling.”
Everything was rebuilt ahead of the 2019 season, and Friday night, Lowe scored four touchdowns as the appropriately named Tornadoes won their Class 2A district championship with a 33-14 win over previously undefeated Belle Plaine.
The twister was nothing new for the Tornadoes. In 2016, the city had an EF-2 that damaged 143 structures. But it was new to first-year coach Jason Nichols. He was hired only a couple of weeks earlier.
Before Nichols arrived in Eureka, the seniors had suffered through back-to-back 3-6 seasons and a winless one as freshmen. With Friday’s win, Eureka moved to 5-2 with a chance to double last year’s win total in Week 8 with a senior night win over 4-3 Cherryvale.
After the win over Belle Plaine, Nichols wore a look of disbelief. He lifted his hat off his head, cocked it to the side and put his hand on his forehead.
“It was a super emotional game,” Nichols said. “I’m proud of them for not giving up. We’ve been talking about a district title forever, but I haven’t really thought about it. It’s amazing what these kids have gone through and keep fighting through.”
Nichols said his team came out flat against Belle Plaine. The Tornadoes were tied at 7 at halftime but gave the ball away a couple of times and even faced a third-and-45 just ahead of halftime.
Midway through the third quarter, the Tornadoes flipped a switch. Junior Brennan Lowe fielded a punt and returned it for a touchdown. Belle Plaine brought back the ensuing kickoff. And Eureka sophomore Garrison Spoonts did the same thing on the kickoff after that.
There were three touchdowns in 28 seconds of game time.
With 3:48 left, Lowe scored his third touchdown of the night on a fourth-and-7 to give Eureka a two-touchdown lead and clinch the District 5 title.
Several news outlets have come through the tiny 2A town to film post-tornado updates on the team. Although the story may have grown repetitive for the players, it is part of their legacy at Eureka High.
Eureka hasn’t won six games since 2013. It hasn’t won seven since 2000. With a district title wrapped up, Eureka will enter the Class 2A postseason against the No. 4 team out of District 6, which heading into Week 8 is 3-4 Chaparral.
If the Tornadoes win that game and another to capture a regional title, they would hit eight wins.
Hare said he believes the 2019 Eureka team would have been good without the tornado but conceded it undoubtedly brought the team and the community closer together.
“Tonight was really important for our mental strength,” Hare said. “That was an undefeated team, and coming in, you might think that undefeated team was going to win. We just knew we had to protect our home.”