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Howells Football: The build to greatness

Howells Football: The build to greatness

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Mike Speirs

Howells-Dodge head coach Mike Speirs talks to his team in a huddle last year. Spiers took over the Howells program in 1996 and took the Bobcats to their first playoff appearance in 13 years in 1999. What followed was nine championships in 11 seasons.

Howell's history as a football powerhouse is almost unequaled in Nebraska high school sports. Only one other program has won six straight state championships, and none has won nine in 11 years.

The Bobcats run of success from 2000 to 2005 included just two losses among 72 wins. 

The amount of history Howells can claim is unparalleled and unmatched. However, prior to the 21st century, the program had just four trips to the postseason and only one playoff win.

When head coach Mike Spiers took over in 1996 it had been 10 years since the last playoff appearance, and the only playoff win.

In the weeks ahead, the Schuyler Sun will be telling the story of the program's rise to greatness and the moments that made that decade of dominance so memorable.

But in the beginning, Howells lacked identity. Spiers took over a roster that had ability, but wasn't quite sure who, or what, it was.

"Howells just had a lot of athletic talent go through here," Spiers said. "They won a lot of basketball games, a lot of basketball titles and a lot of the kids when I first got here had parents who had been a part of that. There was talent here."

Howells was ineligible to compete in the playoffs in the late '90s due to enrollment numbers. Rather than set a regular season schedule with area and district opponents, the Bobcats instead played in the Gridiron Conference along other schools not large enough for postseason entry.

In place of the state playoffs, the Gridiron Conference held a playoff with the top four teams. 

The Bobcats missed out on the field while Speirs was the head coach for the first three years. 

Part of finding an identity was finding a system that worked. For Howells, it didn't start so much as a system as it did a simple play - the sweep. 

The first running back under the Spier's system was Kurt Bohaboi. In just a nine-game season, he rushed for over 2,000 yards. 

"I kind of credit him a lot," Spiers said. "We’ve become known for running the sweep, and he actually taught me a lot as a coach about how he approached it and how he ran it and a lot of things he told us he did running it are things we still coach our kids on today about running that one play. He kind of set the tone for us to be a sweep team."

In 1999, once the enrollment numbers were up, the team went 6-4 and qualified for the state playoffs. 

Howells, out of the playoffs for 13 years, didn't look like newcomers in a 38-14 win over Clay Center. Yet, while the program had made progress, it hadn't quite made the progress necessary to compete with a traditional program like Humphrey St. Francis.

The Flyers edged out a 14-6 win but it seemed the Bobcats had proven to themselves they at least belong in the conversation.  

"I always said that was kind of a watershed moment for our program," Spiers said. "They had beaten us earlier in the year; quite significantly. We got to play them here at home in the playoffs and we ended up losing to them 14-6. It was one of those games where St. Francis was the big bully on the block." 

Spiers said he remembers watching that game realizing that Howells could compete with St. Francis. 

"They weren’t that intimidating team," Spiers said. "Our kids were playing with them. We had our shots in that game and we just came up a little bit short. I think that one game probably provided as much motivation to our kids [as anything]." 

Of course, while 1999 may have been the first indication, the trip to the playoffs was more indicative of a process than one good team. Many of the players who had set the foundation in the three years prior were gone at that point.

One of the most necessary players to the growth was Matthew Gall. Gall never won a state championship.

"I always said, he was the one that made it OK to go into the weight room," Spiers said. "We weren’t really big in the weight room when I first got here. That wasn’t a very big focus of theirs. He was very dedicated." 

Gall went on to play college football at Nebraska Wesleyan. 

"I always felt he was the one who set the tone for us," Spiers said. "He’s the one that got the younger kids to come in and lift just by his leadership. It wasn’t necessarily a vocal thing.

"I always felt he was the one that set the tone for our program. The kids that came along after that were just following his example. We just got to the point where that became how we did things."

The loss to St. Francis served as the catalyst for what would become one of the most dominant dynasties in Nebraska high school history. 

Former assistant coach, and current voice of the Jaguars, Scott Polacek, recalls the shift in attitude after the first playoff appearance in over a decade. 

"The season before that, we lost to St. Francis in the playoffs," he remembered, "and we kind of made a rallying cry that we could step it up and get past them."

The Flyers were there waiting again in the second round of the playoffs next fall as a dynasty was about to be born.

Peter Huguenin is a sports reporter for the Schuyler Sun. Reach him via email at SCHsports@lee.net

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