It’s not often a singular game in the final week of the regular season has so many ramifications for both sides.
But Friday night's matchup between Howard and Hanson in Alexandria meets that magnitude.
Both teams enter at 7-0, with Hanson occupying the top spot in the Class 9AA media poll and Howard sitting at No. 2 in Class 9A. In terms of seed points, Hanson is fewer than two-tenths of a point out of first in its class. Meanwhile, Howard is in third, battling with fellow Class 9A unbeatens Wall and De Smet for placement behind a fourth unbeaten in the class, Herreid/Selby Area, which already completed its regular-season schedule.
The game also serves as a de facto Cornbelt Conference championship game and a potential springboard into the postseason for the victor.
“It’s what the conference title in the Cornbelt should be,” said Howard coach Pat Ruml. “There are a lot of things to look at in this game and say it could go either way. It’s a pretty evenly matched game and a big game for us, but we wouldn’t have it any other way, really.”
Evenly matched might be an understatement. Not only do Hanson and Howard run similar offenses, as members of the Cornbelt Conference, schedules contain many of the same opponents. In most cases, the margins of victory against common opponents was similar, further complicating the task of separating the two programs.
Not even the difference in classification is likely to sway the matchup. Though the Tigers are from Class 9A, they’ve proven more than capable of competing against the top of Class 9AA. Four of Howard’s seven wins have come against competition from the higher classification, and three of those Class 9AA programs have held a top-five ranking this season.
“They haven’t been stopped,” Hanson coach Jim Haskamp said. “… You know what they’re going to run at you, you just have to be able to stop it, but nobody has.”
While Hanson might have competed in a few more close games than its counterpart, the Beavers have rarely been stopped themselves, evidenced by their undefeated record and four wins by double figures. However, both teams enter Friday after overcoming significant tests a week ago. Hanson scored in the final seconds to defeat Canistota/Freeman, 32-24, and Howard downed Garretson late, 42-35.
Haskamp and Ruml have both stressed the importance of their programs treating it like any other week in terms of preparation and focus, but when it comes to Friday night and the boost it could provide the winner with entering the playoffs, it will hardly be the same.
“For us and Hanson both, this game could be a big lift or a kind of a downer for the team that loses,” Ruml said. “It’s one of those games where you say, ‘It’s too bad someone has to lose,’ but they do, and that’s the reality.”