WEST DES MOINES, Ia. — Hyperbole is one thing.
Promoting Friday’s edition of Valley vs. Dowling Catholic is another.
Any grand question about the 7:30 p.m. kickoff at Drake Stadium can have an even greater answer, setting up the annual must-see game between the West Des Moines powerhouses.
“It’s probably the most exciting game of the year, every year,” says Valley senior guard John Raridon.
How good are the teams this season? Valley (3-0) is No. 1 in Class 4A, while two-time defending champion Dowling (2-0) is No. 4.
Is this really the biggest regular season game in Iowa? The local rivals have each won five state championships in 4A since 2000. Which means the entire rest of the class has also won five in that time.
What makes this meeting special? Since Valley and Dowling began their dominant run in 2000, they’ve played 15 times in the regular season and seven times in the playoffs. The record: Valley 11, Dowling 11.
It’s the most important and highest-quality high school football rivalry in Iowa this millennium.
So, Valley and Dowling will play a classic? Well.
“We just prepare,” says Dowling Catholic head coach Tom Wilson. “Everybody else can talk about the ifs, ands and buts, and all those types of things. Our job is to prepare to get our team ready, just like they are.”
The “Super Bowl” of West Des Moines is a home game for the Maroons, but will be played in Des Moines rather than at a split and partisan Valley Stadium. Different starts to the 2015 season have not prevented a highly-ranked battle of unbeaten squads.
“It’s a challenging week because there’s so much emphasis put on it,” Valley head coach Gary Swenson said before practice on Wednesday. “Your challenge as a coach comes after it’s over. If you win it, you still have to go back to work and try and improve. If you’re not successful, it’s kind of like all is lost. But if that was the case, Dowling wouldn’t have won a state championship last year.”
The Tigers entered the fall as 4A favorites and have lived up to the billing with blowout wins over three teams that made last year’s playoffs. A balanced defense has shutout Iowa City West and Southeast Polk the last two weeks.
“Our defense is just a bunch of good high school players that are well-coached,” Swenson said. “We have a very basic scheme. Everybody knows what we do. People are going to move the ball on us, we just try to fight them all the way to the end zone.”
The task will be tougher against the Maroon offense, which has shared time at quarterback between seniors Kurt Walding and J.T. Brown. Both players rushed and threw for a touchdown in last week’s 28-21 win at Waukee. The game was kept close by Dowling’s uncharacteristic 10 penalties and four turnovers.
“I really don’t want to use two quarterbacks going forward, but that’s the way it is right now and we’re just trying to see if somebody steps to the forefront,” Wilson said. “We’re happy with both of them. The big thing is that we have to see what is best for this football team. Is it both? Is it one?”
The duo has been asked to replace Iowa recruit Ryan Boyle at the helm of what became 4A’s highest scoring offense ever. Physical runners offer support in the backfield — Jacob Zachary and Cole Deskin are well-scouted athletes — but the start since Week 1’s cancellation at Cedar Rapids Xavier has been slow.
“Obviously we’d love to pitch a shutout again, but against Dowling we need to have realistic expectations and we want to do our part so that our offense can go to work,” said Valley senior linebacker Nick Yencer.
“Their offense is basically the same as last year, so we have to read our keys on the quarterbacks and be smart whether they’re running or passing it. It’s nice not to have to tackle Ryan Boyle, I will admit that.”
Valley has a treasure chest of talent on offense, starting with an experienced offensive line that includes Raridon, a coveted Nebraska recruit, and stretching to the young skill position players. Junior quarterback Rocky Lombardi has thrown for 588 yards and seven touchdowns with no interceptions, with sophomore running back Jevon Mason at 435 rushing yards and three scores.
“This will be a close game,” Swenson said. “Like most high school games, turnovers will determine it. We’ve got to be sure that we can take care of the ball and if we can get a turnover or even a stop from Dowling, we’ll feel good.”
That’s how this special series has played out in recent seasons. And that includes last season, when Dowling was in the No. 1 spot and riding a 17-game win streak into Valley Stadium.
“We know every year, no matter the teams coming to the table, that anything can happen,” Yencer said. “Last year’s game was probably my favorite high school game to play in so far.”
The result was the lone loss for the Maroons in the past two years, a speed bump before it earned a fifth crown and third with Wilson. Dowling players don’t need reminding that the roles are now reversed.
“Last year, we had probably had more experience than what Valley did and this year it’s certainly turned,” Wilson said. “But you’ve still got to play the game. It’s going to be fun and it should be a great atmosphere.”
The experienced coaching staffs want their players to revel in the rivalry. But for all the shifts in power and back-and-forth action that takes place Friday night, no title trophies will be handed out after the game. It’s just another win in Iowa’s best high school football series.
“It’s all dependent all on your talent level,” Swenson said. “We’re all good coaches and we have really good players. We’re both going to be looked at as contenders in the playoffs. Going back 20 years these teams have won a lot of football games, so there are very few surprises.
“But every year, it seems like one of the two teams is loaded with the players that would make you say, ‘That’s a championship-caliber team.'”
INSIDE THE RIVALRY
CLASS 4A STATE CHAMPIONSHIPS SINCE 2000
- Dowling Catholic: 2000, 2001, 2010, 2013, 2014
- Valley: 2002, 2003, 2005, 2008, 2011
- Rest of state: 2004, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012
REGULAR SEASON MEETINGS SINCE 2000
- 2000: Dowling 21, Valley 0
- 2001: Dowling 21, Valley 6
- 2002: Valley 56, Dowling 21
- 2003: Valley 45, Dowling 14
- 2004: Valley 48, Dowling 14
- 2005: Valley 28, Dowling 21
- 2006: Dowling 24, Valley 14
- 2007: Valley 28, Dowling 13
- 2008: Valley 22, Dowling 0
- 2009: Dowling 44, Valley 14
- 2010: Dowling 34, Valley 7
- 2011: Valley 28, Dowling 21
- 2012: Dowling 27, Valley 7
- 2013: Dowling 37, Valley 26
- 2014: Valley 24, Dowling 21
POSTSEASON MEETINGS SINCE 2000
- 2000: Dowling 45, Valley 19
- 2001: Dowling 17, Valley 7
- 2005: Valley 20, Dowling 17
- 2008: Valley 32, Dowling 27
- 2010: Dowling 23, Valley 20
- 2011: Valley 45, Dowling 20
- 2013: Dowling 17, Valley 3