Ernie Howren versus Bishop Gorman. It’s been a popular matchup of state supremacy over the last decade.
When he was Reed High's coach from 2001-16, Howren continued to run into the roadblock that is the Gorman Gaels. He played them six times in the state playoffs, including three for the 4A championship.
Howren is back in the Nevada large-class state title game this weekend, this time as the coach of Bishop Manogue. There should be no surprise which school stands in his way: Bishop Gorman, which has won nine straight state titles. The game kicks off Saturday at 12:10 p.m. at Las Vegas’ Sam Boyd Stadium.
“Obviously we haven’t beat them yet,” Howren said, “so we have to have some kind of different approach. I think the biggest thing coming into the game is just finding a way to steal a couple possessions and get some three-and-outs on them so they don’t go up and down the field, which is easier said than done. But that’s really it. And just keep doing what we’ve done to get to this point.”
This Manogue team is more run-oriented than the Reed teams Howren took up against Gorman. Senior Peyton Dixon is 56 yards shy of becoming the first running back in state history to rush for 3,000 yards in a season. His 44 rushing touchdowns are four shy of the most in state history. Dixon and his teammates are hoping to get Howren that state championship he never reached with the Raiders.
“He stays up constantly, weekdays, weekends, sometimes I don’t even think he goes home, he’s staying here so long watching film,” Dixon said. “He’s crazy dedicated and seeing all the time and effort he puts into game plans for us, for us to go out and execute and get him this win and get him a state championship would be a big moment for us.”
Howren said he loved his time at Reed but saw a great opportunity when offered the Manogue job two years ago, the mix of a strong group of underclassmen, good facilities and support from the Miner administration making his decision easier.
“I knew those things were here and I felt like that was something I wanted to be a part of,” Howren said.
It was easy to predict future success for Manogue after the move, the only question being how long it would take Howren to get the Miners to this stage. Manogue went 7-4 last season, losing to Spanish Springs in a first-round regional playoff game. Things didn’t start great this year, either, as the Miners split their first six games.
“I knew we were going to be good,” Howren said. “When we were 3-3, that’s when I was frustrated – ‘This is not what I thought was going to happen.’ I was really disappointed, in myself, where we were at as a program. I also knew you don’t change a culture overnight and it will take some time, and at that time I thought, ‘Well, maybe it will take another year.’”
But Manogue flipped its season after the slow start and has won its last eight games, including a shocking overtime upset of unbeaten Damonte Ranch in the Northern 4A Region title game. The Miners then raced past Arbor View to set up this matchup with Gorman, which enters as a heavy favorite.
“They’re a very well coached team, very fast, very physical, but I think we are every bit as well coached as they are and I think coming in we should have some good energy,” Dixon said.
Howren is proud of his players for putting themselves in this position after the slow start. Dixon said the Miners lacked a winning culture and lacked a hard-working environment before Howren arrived, but the coach’s presence has squeezed as much success out of the team’s available talent as possible.
“We were able to change the culture in two years,” Howren said. “That means the world to me, and I have so much respect for our team and our kids for hanging in there and trusting the process and trusting us. There were times we were not easy to deal with because we knew what kind of team we were and we weren’t practicing like it, we weren’t playing it like it and that’s all culture. For them to hang in there and trust us in the process, I’ll have great respect for these guys for many years to come.”
Now, Howren faces his long-time bugaboo, the Gaels, who have shown some weaknesses this season but remains a strong force. Gorman lost three of its first four games but has ripped off ninth straight victories. It beat Liberty High, 42-28, in its state semifinal, not the usual thrashing the Gaels hand out. After eight straight seasons ranked in the MaxPreps Top 25 nationally, Gorman is 179th this year.
“I think they’re really good,” Howren said. “They’re really big, they’re really fast, they have great size in the secondary, the wide receivers are huge and obviously up front on both sides of the ball they’re big and strong.”
In Howren’s three state title game meetings against Gorman while at Reed, the Gaels scored victories of 72-28 (in 2011), 48-14 (in 2013) and 70-28 (in 2014). Howren knows how big the task is to beat Gorman. The Gaels’ average margin of victory in the state championship game during their nine-title streak is 45.8 points. Their closest title game in that stretch was 34 points against Reed in 2013.
“It would be awesome,” Howren said of potentially beating the Gaels. “Against a program as nationally recognized as Gorman is, to go against them and take this group of kids and go beat them, it would mean everything.”
Sports columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @MurrayNSN.