It all started in the backyard as youngsters and later evolved into its own special backyard brand of football which they named Small Ball.
But there’s nothing small about Regina’s passing game and it could well be a key to whether the Regals can win a third consecutive state championship Friday.
Class 1A football almost by definition relies upon the running game. Smaller schools have fewer athletes to choose from and finding a reliable thrower and more than one guy who can get open and reliably catch the ball can be a challenge.
Regina is the rare Class 1A program that consistently can move the ball through the air. The Regals were third in Class 1A in average yards gained through passing. Only LeMars Gehlen (230.7), which finished 2-7, and District 6 runner-up Wilton (180.4) averaged more yardage through the air than the Regals (179.8).
This is a team strength that coach Marv Cook and the players anticipated in August.
“We felt coming in, we had one of the top passing games in 1A for sure,” receiver Matt Streb said. “We put a lot of work in this summer with reps, timing and stuff like that.”
“It’s kind of been there coming up through the ranks in junior high and freshman ball,” quarterback Mark Ward said. “We’ve always been able to throw the ball.”
“We run a different offense than most 1A teams have,” running back Mike Donovan said. “They usually have two guys in the backfield and sometimes three. We spread things out and open up the passing game more than other teams do.”
The reasons for Regina’s success are many. Ward has a strong, accurate arm, completing 63 percent of his throws and averaging 17.7 yards per completion.
“Not to give Ward a big head or anything, but it’s hard to find a good small-school quarterback who can actually throw,” receiver Alex Balke joked.
Ward has a lot of help, too. His offensive line nearly always gives him adequate time to throw. A strong running game forces defenses to concentrate on bottling up Ward, tailback Riley Dixon and Donovan.
“Our running game definitely opens it up,” Streb said. “We have great linemen and they protect. We could probably pass more if we wanted to, but we don’t have to which is a good thing.”
Balke credited the running game with opening the deep passes that he and Streb have caught.
“All those deep passes, all those posts, those go’s, they’re all off play-action and everybody’s getting eight guys in the box to stop our line and stop Dixon and Mikey,” Balke said. “That helps when there’s only three guys back there.”
“We also sell the run on those plays,” Streb said.
“We keep our offense pretty balanced, so when the running game is going, the safeties have to come up to help that, and once they come up, they forget about the long balls and Balke and Streb sneak behind there,” Donovan said.
Regina has a group of receivers that Ward has grown up with who are skilled at getting open and catching what comes their way. Fifteen different players have caught passes for Regina, and although some of those are reserves who play in the latter stages of blowouts, it’s indicative of Regina’s willingness and ability to air it out.
“They can all go deep; they can all catch it short,” Ward said.
“Usually when we throw the ball, we throw it deep,” Balke said. “That’s what it seems like anyway.”
Balke and Streb have been the primary deep receivers, combining for 74 catches for 1,427 yards, a collective average of 19.3 yards per catch. Cook said the design of the spread offense is to get the best athletes in space where they can maneuver.
Donovan is a running back who is third on the team in receptions with 25. He’s in the slot or split out at times but also catches out of the backfield.
“A lot of times I’m crossing the middle of the field making the safety choose to pick me or the outside guy,” Donovan said. “Occasionally Ward will throw it to me, but a lot of times it opens up the outside receivers, and once you get the ball in their hands, they’ll make plays.”
“(Donovan’s) the real deal,” Cook said. “He’ll do anything you ask him to do. He blocks, he runs, he can catch. He gets it in the seams. A very unselfish player.”
Against good teams, and all you have to do is consider the quarterfinal and semifinal games, that extra added offensive dimension can be critical.
“Matt and Alex are usually on the outside and Mike can take the middle but all these guys are pretty flexible in what they can do, and you’ve just got to find the open guy and get him the ball,” Ward said. “They are all playmakers. They can all do great things after the catch.”
“(Streb) is deceptively fast, and he’s shifty,” Cook said. “When you mix that combination of a good route runner and good spatial awareness as far as how to use leverage, he does a very good job of that.”
Balke is split out but is strong enough to play tight end if the Regals didn’t already have Mike Sehl there.
“He’s linear by trade, but he’s incredibly athletic,” Cook said. “He can leap and he’s explosive, strong hands. Can catch the ball in traffic.”
As an indicator of Regina’s balance, only Aplington-Parkersburg averaged more total yards per game (467) than Regina (409.8).
Regina expects St. Albert to mix up its defenses after sitting in a 4-4 to stop Emmetsburg’s between-the-tackles running attack in the semifinal. But by this point in the season, the Regals have just about seen it all.