Another season of Friday night high school football is about to kick off, but nothing in West Des Moines conjures up recollections of classic showdowns, fuels spirited debates between families and friends, or elicits more media hype than the combination of two words:
No matter how you say it, it is arguably the greatest high school football rivalry in the state, if not the most significant considering the fact that since 2000 either Valley or Dowling-Catholic has fielded teams in the state championship Class 4-A game nine times, winning eight of those titles.
Locally it is the Super Bowl of West Des Moines, pitting two of the state’s largest schools (located only three miles apart) against one another for football supremacy in front of more than 10,000 fans at Valley Stadium. Both teams play each other once during the regular season, and more times than not, again during the playoffs.
“It’s huge. It’s usually our biggest game of the year,” says Dowling-Catholic senior wide receiver and punter Matt Haack. “Tons of people come to the game, and a ton of people watch it on the Internet.”
Tanner Stine, senior quarterback for Valley, agrees with his opponent.
“It’s big for us this year, as it is every year with them,” he says. “It’s big for the players. It’s big for the fans. We’ll do what we can to get the ‘W.’ ”
This year’s west side showdown will be held Friday, Aug. 31 at 7:30 p.m. at Valley Stadium where Valley, the defending state champion in Class 4-A, will be the home team. It marks the third game of the regular season for both squads and promises to bring out the best in both teams.
“We usually play them early in the year, which provides plenty of motivation during the preseason,” says Valley football coach Gary Swenson, who enters his 39th year of coaching high school football and 18th season at Valley where he has led the Tigers to state championships in 2002, 2003, 2005, 2008 and 2011. “It’s one of the toughest games on the schedule and helps get you in top form early in the season.”
In 2011, the Tigers twice defeated the Maroons, including 28-21 during the regular season opener at Drake Stadium and 45-20 in the quarterfinal round of the state football playoffs. They were key wins in Valley’s perfect season that concluded with a record of 14-0 following a 17-14 victory over Bettendorf in the title game at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls.
Dowling’s loss to Valley in the playoffs last year ended its season with a record of 9-3, one year removed from winning the state championship in 2010. The Maroons have also captured state titles in 2000 and 2001.
Tom Wilson, now in his eighth year as head football coach and third year as athletic director at Dowling-Catholic, says he does not prepare differently for Valley than he would any other team, but that the game helps him to better understand his team.
“You find out what your weaknesses are because Valley will find them,” he says. “The good thing about the game with them is that you find that out, but the bad thing is that you might lose a rivalry game.”
Memorable match ups
Though Valley and Dowling squared off against each other for local bragging rights for years beforehand, the annual contest didn’t become a bonafide rivalry until 1977 when Valley became the first metro school to defeat the Maroons in a decade. The game was played over the course of two nights due to a severe thunderstorm, and it marked the arrival of Valley’s football program under the leadership of former head coach Lee Crawford as the Tigers went on to capture the conference title.
Dowling, which finished second in state in 1972-74 and 1976, enjoyed the upper hand during the series’ infancy. The Maroons were coached by legendary figures then like Jim Williams and Don Mauro and regularly advanced through the playoffs.
Over the years, the two schools have battled one another during classic playoff games, too, including 1983’s first-round contest when Dowling defeated Valley 13-9, Valley’s 10-3 first-round victory in 1996 and the 2005 semifinal game in which the Tigers edged the Maroons 20-17. Going into this season, both teams are tied for the total number of playoff appearances, with the Tigers having appeared in the statewide contest for 20 consecutive years and the Maroons for 18 successive seasons. Either one team or the other has advanced to the semifinals of the state football playoffs nine of the last 10 years.
“Each program makes the other one better,” Wilson says. “When I got here, they were the standard. At the end of the day, West Des Moines can be pretty proud of the players both schools have.”
Swenson, who also won a state championship in 1994 as head football coach at Spencer High School, says rivalries are part of high school football tradition in Iowa.
“Rivalries are relative to where you are at. When I coached at Spencer, we had a rivalry with Emmetsburg that was just as big to those communities as the Valley-Dowling rivalry is to this one,” he says. “I’ve been at five high schools, and all of them have had red letter games.”
Though the players change each year, the magnitude of the rivalry rarely does.
“To the people involved that year, the players, their families and the students, the game carries equal weight from year to year,” Swenson says. “They would tell you that beating Dowling is at the top of their list.”
Swenson, who has led teams into the state playoffs for 25 consecutive years, including 16 times to the semifinals and nine times to the championship game and was inducted into the Iowa Football Coaches Hall of Fame in 1993, recalls his first game against Dowling-Catholic as Valley’s head football coach.
“It was 1995, and we weren’t very good. Don Mauro was their coach, and we got shut out. It was disappointing, and it was obvious that we had a lot of work to do to get our players up to where their’s were. We played them again that year in the playoffs and lost, but we were more competitive.”
Wilson, who has coached high school football at English Valley, Wilton and Dike-New Hartford for 20 years and has seen 11 of his teams qualify for the playoffs and four of them reach the championship game, including Dowling-Catholic winning it all in 2010, also vividly recalls his first Valley-Dowling contest.
“I had heard people talk about the Valley-Dowling game, and I had watched it from afar. I had coached games in the UNI-Dome and heard the crowds there, but it was a different feeling the first time I coached against Valley. It was eye opening. I was proud to be part of the best rivalry in the state,” he says.
What makes the Valley-Dowling rivalry unique, Wilson adds, is how well the fan bases and players know each other.
“There is a lot of mingling between the students and the fans,” he says. “Even Gary and I knew each other before I came here. Even though we don’t see each other as much, and we’re on opposite ends of the rivalry, I have a lot of respect for him.”
Swenson says the feeling is mutual.
“There has been three coaches at Dowling since I’ve been at Valley (Don Mauro, Matt Dillon, Tom Wilson) and all three have proven to be very capable of leading their program. Tom is an outstanding coach and has a great staff, and it’s fun to compete with them because you know their teams will play well,” he says.
Who will win this year’s game(s) remains to be seen, but both coaches are optimistic about their team’s chances and are confident they will probably meet again during the playoffs.
“We lost 52 seniors after a 14-0 season, so we won’t have the depth that we had a year ago, but I think we will have a good team. We’ve been working hard this summer,” says Swenson. “Both teams should have a good chance at the end of the year to meet again. A win against Dowling validates the work you’ve put in.”
Wilson says he anticipates playing Valley twice this season, and that each game will be different.
“Our teams change from the beginning of the year to the end. The identity changes as they evolve. With Gary’s team, they’re so well coached they’ll be a heck of a lot better at the end of the season, and I would hope our team would be better, too,” he says. “We lost a few seniors, but we’re optimistic about what we can become. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Though each team will play two games before they meet one another this season, the players are already anticipating the matchup.
“There’s always a little extra jitters, a little extra edge to the game even though we prepare the same for them as we would any team,” says Haack. “It’s just fun to compete against your friends because every year both teams want to be the best in West Des Moines.”
Stine says even though he and his Valley teammates are focused on the game at hand each week, the Dowling game looms large in the back of their minds.
“They’re always on your mind. It will be fun to see how it plays out,” he says.