Friends first: Howard, Stone together again

WCHS coach can tie Pekin Hall of Fame leader with a win against Spencer tonight

WCHS head coach Bob Howard (right) talks with senior linebacker Caleb Olson during the halftime break last Friday in Gilbert. Howard will be after career win No. 332 tonight. DFJ photo/Troy Banning

WEBSTER CITY — For more than two decades they lived 17 minutes from one another, just a short jaunt down highway 149 in eastern Iowa.

Each had his own powerhouse prep football program, Tom Stone at Pekin and Bob Howard at Sigourney-Keota. So close in proximity, you would think the rivalry would have been intense, enough to create enough animosity to blanket the 14.8 miles that separated their two schools.

You would think wrong.

The truth is, they were friends first and adversaries second. They fished together, traded stories and more than a few laughs.

“He was a mentor of mine and we got to be very good friends,” Howard said of his relationship with Stone. “I learned a lot from him about non-football stuff like integrity and how to run a football program the right way. I have a ton of respect for him … it was a neat relationship.”

WCHS head coach Bob Howard (second from right) gives the play call to Malachi Montes (82) during the first half against Gilbert last Friday. Howard owns a career record of 331-95. DFJ photo/Troy Banning

It’s been 11 years since Howard left his longtime home in Sigourney for Webster City, where he has built another football power from the ground up. His Lynx teams have 10 consecutive playoff appearances, highlighted by a Class 3A state runner-up finish in 2016. And all of that success has put him and Stone in the same orbit once again.

Howard needs just one more victory to catch Stone on the state’s all-time wins list and it could come as early as this evening when WCHS hosts Spencer at 7:30 p.m. Stone, who retired following the 2009 season after 42 years at Pekin, owns a 332-88-1 career record. Howard, now in his 42nd season, is 331-95.

Stone currently sits at No. 8 on the state’s leaderboard, Howard at No. 9. And you better believe Howard will enjoy it when he reels his friend in.

“I definitely want to get ahead of Tom, that’s always been my goal,” Howard, who has 26 playoff appearances, the seventh-most all-time, said. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and I didn’t know if I ever would. I think it’s a great sign of respect for Tom Stone that he was in my sights and always a goal. It would be humbling to tie him and hopefully pass him.”

The two Hall of Fame coaches own three state championships each and have combined to lead their teams to 11 state championship game appearances. Both also learned under longtime Central College coach Ron Schipper; Stone was the captain on Schipper’s first Iowa Conference championship team in 1965.

But joining Stone this evening is anything but a foregone conclusion. Howard knows his Lynx team will have its hands full against Spencer, which will be led onto the field by WCHS graduate Jim Tighe. Coming off a Week 1 27-13 loss to Spirit Lake, the Tigers will own a significant size advantage, particularly on the line of scrimmage.

“They’re big and physical, and they run the triple option, which people don’t run anymore,” Howard said of Spencer. “They’ve got 270-, 280- and 290-pound linemen almost all the way across from the looks of it and they come off the ball well. So it’s going to be a challenge, that’s for sure.”

Tonight’s 7:30 p.m. kickoff at Lynx Field will be the first meeting between WCHS and Spencer since 1990.

The Tigers rushed for 219 yards in their loss to Spirit Lake last week and halfback Isaiah Spencer led the way with 122 yards on 25 carries. Quarterback Gage Garnatz is also a threat on the ground and through the air; he rushed for 31 yards and threw for 55 more.

WCHS held up well defensively in its 14-6 win over Gilbert a week ago, particularly on the ground where it limited the Tigers to 75 yards on 33 totes. But Howard knows his team will face a different kind of animal this evening.

“We played pretty good run defense the other night, but this is a different scheme,” he said. “We have to try to buckle up and try not to get knocked off the ball.”

Freeing up linebackers Caleb Olson and Trey Mathis to flow to the ball will be the top priority. Both were dominant in Week 1, Mathis with 101⁄2 tackles and a sack, and Olson with 71⁄2 more.

“Caleb had a really great ballgame, and I might say that’s as good as he’s ever played at linebacker, and that’s great right off the bat,” Howard said. “Mathis is very athletic and he’s only going to get better and better.”

WCHS and Spencer will adopt the same offensive game plan — ball control and milk the clock for all its worth. In other words, expect a contest where the clock won’t be stopped all that often.

The Lynx own ground game racked up 303 yards against Gilbert, 162 of those from tailback Trace Kepler. Spinback Dylan Steen was kept relatively quiet, but he dealt with dehydration issues that Howard says shouldn’t be an issue tonight.

Can the new-look WCHS offensive line take another step in the right direction? That will be key, too.

“In the first half I was pretty pleased with how our new kids played, but when we got tired we got really high with our pad level,” Howard said. “So we spent a lot of time watching film (on Monday) and a strength of this team is they have intelligence. They’re able to focus and watch film to get something out of it. They take constructive coaching criticism and get better from it.”

WCHS will attempt to remain the lone unbeaten team in 3A District 2.