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Fresh faces lead Howard

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HOWARD — Thirteen Howard players moved on from last year’s Class 9A runner-up football team, leaving room for new faces to step in for the Tigers this year.

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Only two starters — junior running back Luke Loudenburg and senior offensive lineman Nick Pardy — have returned for the Tigers’ offense this season. The other seven are first-year starters and have helped No. 2 Howard (10-0) advance to the semifinal round of the playoffs where it hosts No. 3 Potter County (9-1) at 5 p.m. Saturday in Howard.

“These guys have been waiting for their turn,” Ruml said. “It’s really good for these guys to get more experience, and every playoff game we go through is a learning experience for us.”

Pardy is the leader for the offensive line — the foundation for Howard’s explosive run game. Juniors Bailey Neises and Kaleb Haas join the two-year starter to block for the back field. The three lead the Tigers in tackles as Pardy has a team-high 106, Haas has 105 and Neises rounds out the group with 104.

“They’re smart and change stuff up during the game and take a lot of pride in our assignments,” Ruml said, adding many of his players are also on the wrestling team. “They are good with their body control.”

The effort of the offensive line has allowed Howard to rack up 4,098 yards of total offense in ten games this year, with 3,702 rushing yards. Loudenburg leads the team with 208 carries for 2,099 rushing yards and 37 touchdowns, averaging 10.1 yards per carry and 209.9 yards per game. Junior running back Jordan Kuhle has 940 yards and 11 touchdowns on 79 carries.

Junior quarterback Gunner Gilbertson has completed 23 of his 45 passes this season for 368 yards and four touchdowns. Leading the receiving corps is junior tight end Tanner Henkel with four receptions for 112 yards and two touchdowns in three games.

Ruml said this is the first-ever meeting between the Tigers and Battlers.

“They are very well coached team and Vern (Smith) has coached in some big games and taken a few teams to the (Dakota)Dome,” Ruml said, adding his team knows it has a target on its back as last year’s runner-up.

“We’ve taken everybody’s best shot all season. Everybody all year long has been gunning for us and we have to play our best every week to win.”

Although Howard, which won the state title in 2009, has made it deep in the playoffs for the second straight year, the journey has been different. This season, the Tigers have hosted their two previous playoff games, edging Hanson 22-16 in the first round and trouncing No. 7 New Underwood 56-6 in Monday’s quarterfinal round.

Last year, Howard hosted its opening game but was on the road for the quarterfinal and semifinal games.

“Being at home in 9A is very nice,” Ruml said, adding his players don’t feel any pressure.

Potter County was knocked out of the playoffs in the quarterfinals last season, and the last time it made the title game was 2008 when it was Gettysburg. Gettysburg took second in Class 9A that season.

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Brooke Cersosimo
Brooke Cersosimo is The Daily Republic's sports editor.
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