HOWELLS, Neb. — Given the pedigree of the two towns and their coach, Howells-Dodge seems overdue to win a state football title.
The undefeated Jaguars may be up to the challenge.
With a defense that frustrated two of Eight Man-1’s top offensive players, the top-ranked Jaguars raced to a 44-8 halftime lead over the team many thought before the season would be the state champion and easily finished off a 56-22 win over Norfolk Lutheran on a frosty Wednesday night that saw the game end in snow flurries.
“We played physical up front, and kind of set the tone early on,” Jaguar coach Mike Speirs said. “That helped us out on the offensive side then because we decided we’re going to play physical right away.”
Speirs coached the Howells Bobcats to nine state titles in 11 years ending in 2010. Their neighbor to the east, the Dodge Pirates, won six titles between 1994 and 2006.
Only two games into the playoffs and with a road game next Tuesday against Osceola-High Plains (6 p.m. in Osceola), he didn’t want to go too far into comparing the Jaguars to his championship teams.
“I suppose you could say that we were fairly physical up front, which is nice,” he said. “You hope we can continue that and for a couple more games. But this is just a good, hard-working group of kids.”
Norfolk Lutheran quarterback Jaxson Kant tried every which way to get through the Howells-Dodge line. At halftime, he had 15 yards on 15 carries — and only was sacked twice.
Meanwhile, the Jags’ retooled offense — their quarterback, running back and top receiver are not those that started the season — scored on six straight possessions after opening the game with a punt and a fumble.
Levi Belina, a sophomore, ran for five touchdowns in his fourth game starting at running back. He gained 144 yards on 19 carries, snapping a string of three 200-yard games, but no heavy lifting was needed in the second half as he cracked the 1,000-yard plateau for the season.
Luke Rocheford, a senior, had been the running back until getting hurt against Laurel-Concord-Coleridge. When he came back, Belina was running well enough that Speirs put Rocheford at receiver. He had three catches for 71 yards, including the first touchdown of the game.
Jacob Tomcak, a junior, took over at quarterback when Darrin Pokorny went down with a clavicle injury in September. Pokorny was cleared to play Wednesday but was held out.
“It’s a nice problem we’re going to have,” Speirs said. “We’ve got two pretty dang experienced quarterbacks to choose from and try to make it help our offense work a little bit.”
For Lutheran (6-4), it was a season of injuries. The Eagles lost two starters, slot receiver Logan Nitz and freshman lineman Harrison Holdorf, by the third game. Coach Darin Suckstorf said another five or six starters missed games.
It was the last game for Kant and Ben Gebhardt, who was setting receiving records for the Eagles while his quarterback was knocking down most of the school records. Kant finished this year with 1,281 yards passing and 1,377 rushing, Gebhardt with 43 catches for 856 yards.
“Those two have been something special for our program,” Suckstorf said. “They are going to be hard to replace, not just as football players but character guys.”
The Jaguars faced them twice this year and Speirs was glad his defense did better on Kant this time.
“He’s one of those kids, I’ll be honest with you, he’s fun to watch if you don’t have to try to coach against him,” Speirs said. “He just ran so hard but our kids were able to get to him before we let him get started. The first time we played him he broke a couple long runs on us and we really didn’t give any long runs this time and that helped us out confidence-wise.”
Norfolk Lutheran (6-4) 0 8 6 8—22
At Howells-Dodge (10-0) 22 22 6 6—56
HD: Luke Rocheford 24 pass from Jacob Tomcak (Levi Belina run)
HD: Belina 4 run (run failed)
HD: Belina 32 run (R.J. Bayer pass from Tomcak)
HD: Tomcak 7 run (Belina run)
HD: Belina 5 run (run failed)
NL: Ben Gebhardt 54 pass from Jaxson Kant (Gebhardt pass from Kant)
HD: Belina 48 run (Belina run)
HD: Belina 16 run (run failed)
NL: Gebhardt 12 pass from Kant (run failed)
HD: Charlie Dworak 14 run (run failed)
NL: Keaton Ranslem 30 run (Trystan Scott run)
Rushing: NL, Kant 22-43, Ranslem 1-30, Brix Kossmann 1-1, Scott 3-8, Eli Knapp 1-30. HD, Belina 19-144, Dworak 5-28, Lance Brester 2-5, Tomcak 8-31, Jestin Bayer 2-6, Kellen Fiala 1-3.
Passing: NL, Kant 9-18-1 135, Scott 1-2-0 16. HD, Tomcak 3-7-0 71.
Receiving: NL, Gebhardt 5-87, Cort McKeown 1-16, Tanner Koss 1-10, Scott 2-40, Knapp 1-0. HD, Rocheford 3-71.