HOWARD -- There won’t be a lack of storylines on Friday in Howard. The back-and-forth nature of Howard and Canistota/Freeman’s rivalry makes sure of that.
From the 2018 Class 9A state championship game rematch to this year’s prep media poll rankings -- Canistota/Freeman is No. 2 and Howard comes in at No. 4 -- both teams have plenty of places to draw extra motivation from.
They look at film from prior meetings to see what worked, but that’s their extent of reminiscing on the past. The simple fact it’s a Cornbelt Conference game is enough to get their juices flowing.
“I think any time you go into (a conference game), you don’t need any more motivation than that,” Howard coach Pat Ruml said. “... The motivation for us doesn’t have much to do where they’re sitting in the ranking. It’s wanting to prove that we’re one of the top teams in the state, as well.”
The yearly battles have taken many forms in recent years. The Pride outscored the Tigers 82-26 in two meetings last season, including to win the 9A title. In 2017, with both teams in a similar position to this season, then-No. 5 Howard upset then-No. 1 Canistota/Freeman, 27-26.
“The rankings don’t mean as much to our boys and me as much as the simple fact that it’s a conference game,” Pride coach James Strang said. “It’s a team we have a great history competing with.”
Both teams are different from even last November, though. Howard graduated its top-three rushers, and the Pride have to replace two all-state players from its title-winning team while Brad Struck took over as Canistota/Freeman’s offensive coordinator. The Pride (3-0) and Tigers (2-0) still enter undefeated.
Howard is coming off a bye week that Ruml wishes was later in the season when more injuries rack up, but he’s thankful it’s given his team an extra week to prepare for Canistota/Freeman. The Tigers went back to the fundamentals, such as tackling and the passing tree with veteran quarterback Isaac Feldhaus.
Both teams know playing fundamentally-sound football is the key on Friday, especially for Canistota/Freeman’s defense, which has struggled with missed assignments.
“We’ve had some miscues, but we’ve been putting it back together as the game progresses and playing better once we get into a rhythm,” Strang said. “We’ve gotten off to slow starts.”
Canistota/Freeman is eyeing a start like last regular season when it jumped out to a 36-0 halftime lead over the Tigers. But Howard’s defense looks different than when the Pride gained over 400 yards in the title game. It has improved team speed to help it swarm to the ball, as well as versatility to allow it to substitute fewer players.
Paul Winker and Feldhaus have led the linebackers, safeties Tisyn Spader and Sam Aslesen have kept teams from connecting on big passing plays and Jace Sifore and Jacob Dold have been integral on the defensive line. Howard’s only points allowed came when Scotland returned a fumble to the house against its junior varsity team.
Ruml knows stopping Canistota/Freeman’s multi-dimensional offense is different than anything Howard has faced this year, though. All-state quarterback Trey Ortman can beat Howard over the top with the Pride’s bevy of playmakers, while Tyce Ortman -- who switched from receiver to running back -- and Bailey Sage lead a potent ground game. The Pride average 46.7 points per game.
“He had a great offseason,” Strang said of Tyce Ortman, who leads the team with 466 rushing yards. “Doesn’t really struggle to make good reads and is a very athletic kid. Fits really well for him offensively, and it’s a good position for him to be in.”
Trey Ortman is also the leader in the secondary, with Micah Swensen being a force on the defensive line and Sage, an all-state linebacker, making defensive calls and adjustments.
They’ll be tasked with stopping Howard’s newest three-headed backfield. It sacrificed size for speed with Lane Miller, Riley Genzlinger and Kieffer Klinkhammer. They all had productive offseasons, Ruml said, who also praised the offense’s execution as its scored 79 points in two games.
“In Ruml’s system, it doesn’t seem to matter who’s at tailback, they just plug a new one in and they fit the system,” Strang said. “... (Howard’s big offensive line) creates a different opportunity to make sure we’re getting off of blocks at the point of attack and trying to find the football.”
There will be new faces on the field, but the foes are still familiar. It’s a measuring stick game for conference opponents yet to be taken down to the wire -- Howard’s opponents are 1-5, while Canistota/Freeman’s are 5-4.
“We haven’t faced a team like Canistota/Freeman yet,” Ruml said. “I think the same could be said for them -- I don’t know if their schedule has challenged them as much either. I think it’s probably for them, a good chance to get a look at their guys play in a full game and for us the same way. Seeing where we stack up against the better teams in the state.”