It's bowl week in Northern Nevada with our Friday Night Rivals game of the week featuring the Northern 5A Bowl Championship game between Spanish Springs and Damonte Ranch on Saturday at Bishop Manogue in a grudge match that dates back several seasons.
The undefeated Mustangs will face the Cougars, who have won their last three games to lock up the No. 1 seed out of the Highest Desert League with a 10-point victory over Reed last Friday. Damonte Ranch defeated Bishop Manogue 61-42 to secure the No. 1 seed in the Sierra League. While this game is not technically being called the regional championship game due to the unusual six-week season, the NIAA has dubbed it the Northern 5A Bowl Championship and will award a plaque to the winner.
It will be Spanish Springs' first time playing for a regional title.
"We've been building to try to play our best game each week," Cougars coach Robb Hummel said. "We're still not perfect by any stretch, but we have felt like we've played better each week during the last three."
Spanish Springs fell to Bishop Manogue in their season opener and to McQueen the following week, with turnovers dooming the Cougars in both games. But they've played clean football since then and won its last three games to just get into a the title game (the High Desert League has a three-way tie for first, so it went to the tiebreaker system).
"We have several guys in new spots, both offensively and defensively," Hummel said. "We haven't had a lot of time to work on our technique but to actually see it in live action, that's the biggest thing. It's one thing to practice against your own guys but to see that in live action and then fixing the things that we were doing wrong, we're still not perfect, but we're doing things a lot better from an execution standpoint on the defensive side. Offensively, we have guys making plays now, and initially that wasn't really the case. I think the offensive line is playing exceptional. The biggest difference, honestly, is we haven't turned the ball over in the last three games. In the first two games, we had way too many turnovers."
The Cougars won back-to-back High Desert League titles in 2018 and 2019 but fell in the Northern 5A semifinals the last three years, with the last two against Bishop Manogue. With no playoff system in place this season due to the shortened schedule, Spanish Springs gets a chance to play in arguably the biggest game in program history.
"It's a big game," Hummel said. "It's the top two teams playing against each other. Getting to that point is big. It's been one of our goals the last few years, and we fell short a couple of times. Pulling that one off on Friday (against Reed) the way we did gives us some momentum and some realization that, 'Hey, we can do this and we can compete really well against a good Damonte Ranch team on Saturday.'"
The Mustangs are the favorite to win Saturday and are looking for their first regional championship title since 2016 after falling to Bishop Manogue in the 2018 and 2019 regional championship games. Damonte Ranch remains the only unbeaten team in the Northern 5A.
"We talked about in 2016, after winning that one, I talked to them about winning championships, that you can get to a championship, but you still have to win that championship, and you still have to play," Damonte Ranch coach Shawn Dupris said. "Sometimes when you win one, you assume that's going to continue to happen. And when you come up short, it makes it that much more tough. To have another opportunity, especially with this group, a lot of them played as sophomores, so they've been in the last two and we lost the last two. I think that's a little more chip on their shoulder to say, 'OK, let's finish it.'"
Damonte Ranch's seniors have been playing together for several years and want to cap their high school careers with a victory. Dupris, in his ninth season with the Mustangs, said the tight-knit nature of his team and the way the season has transpired has brought his players even closer.
"In the lockdown when everybody was at home was when we were really concerned about them," Dupris said. "Talking to the parents and relatives of keeping them tight and allowing them to still see each other if it was OK with them, I think that really helped a lot. They worked out and went on runs together, and those are things I couldn't do with them, but I think that kept them tight. When we got the go-ahead, the looks on their faces, they were like different people.
"In the past, I'm not just talking about here, but you'll have several different groups that are tied to each other, but this group, they're all tied together. They all hang out together, they've all gone to school together for a long time, and the majority of them were on an eighth-grade championship team, so they've been playing together and doing this for a long time together. They have great support, great families. I think that's made a lot of the difference in the support that we have as a program. So I think that overall makes the group just outstanding."
Spanish Springs senior running back/linebacker Parker Luthy said his team is equally motivated to make history this weekend.
"We've never made it to a regional championship," Luthy said. "We've come close every year, and it's been a huge letdown. So to actually be in it this year, it's going to be amazing and we're going to show everyone what Spanish Springs is all about. When we lost that game (to McQueen), we came to practice hungry, we came to the games hungry, we just wanted to win, and since we've played McQueen we're undefeated and ready to go."
Luthy said he and his teammates have been wanting this rematch against Damonte Ranch since eighth grade after the Mustangs defeated the Cougars to move on to the state championship. That eighth-grade game is fresh in the mind of Damonte Ranch quarterback/safety Ethan Kulpin.
"I remember we won the state championship in eighth grade, which is crazy because none of us were expected to do that, but we did and we had to go through Spanish Springs first," Kulpin said. "It's been that way since we were young. We've been battling since we were 4 years old. It was always us versus (Spanish Springs' Tristan) Szabo, (Hunter) Parsons, everyone over there. They are great guys, and we can't wait to end it against them, and I think they can't wait to end it against us, too."
Kickoff is set for noon on Saturday on NSN and will be available via stream on NSN's watch tab.