It’s been 29 years since Omaha Gross played in a state championship football game; 33 years for Norris.
The lengthy droughts for both programs end at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday when they meet for the Class B state title at Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium.
A 25-21 loss against Omaha Creighton Prep in 1983 was the only time Gross had been in a title game. Norris made the most of its one finals appearance, defeating Plattsmouth 20-19 in 1979. Not until this year did the Titans win again in the playoffs.
“There’s a lot of excitement around here, but we’re trying to stay even-keel,” third-year Norris coach Jim Jacobsen said. “We want our kids to enjoy the experience.”
Gross coach Tim Johnk hasn’t enjoyed that experience as a coach, but he did as a player. He was a senior running back on the 1986 undefeated Schuyler team that defeated Aurora in the title game.
“I might share some things with our guys about my experience,” Johnk said. “That game was played in Schuyler and I remember people standing about 10 deep around the field. You lose some of that when you play (at Memorial), but it’s a really cool experience for these kids to play at Memorial Stadium.”
Both teams enter Lincoln with momentum. Gross is riding a 10-game win streak while Norris has won eight of nine. Johnk isn’t surprised they are the final two, despite neither team being seeded higher than fifth.
“I knew this was possible with the parity that existed in Class B,” Johnk said.
Norris got this far by running an offense that harkens back to the older days, the Maryland-I. The formation, where three running backs line up directly behind the quarterback, has been the staple of the Titan attack since Jacobsen took over in 2010.
“I just think there’s a lot of things we can do out of that formation,” he said. “We’re in that formation about 75 percent of the time.”
He also has the pieces to make it work, starting with junior quarterback Jakson Reetz. A Nebraska baseball recruit, Reetz has run and passed for more than 1,200 yards, but his coach said the mental part of the game is his strength.
“He has all the athletic tools you like in a quarterback, but he has great decision-making skills,” Jacobsen said.
Reetz has talented people behind him, led by James Kruger, who has rushed for 2,190 yards and 26 touchdowns.
Fullback Nick Davis has racked up 662 on the ground, thanks in part to a physical offensive line.
Norris has topped 40 points seven times this season, including putting 52 points on Aurora in the semifinals. Jacobsen said he knows his group will be tested when it faces a Cougar defense that is giving up just under 10 points per game.
“They have some big guys up front who are hard to move,” Jacobsen said. “This game will likely come down to whose defense can stop the other offense.”
One benefit Omaha Gross has is its ability to wear people down late in games. Johnk said that can be attributed to the offseason training program, headed by strength and conditioning coach Cheryl Sacco.
“It’s no secret that a lot of the success we’ve had is because of the work our kids have done in that program,” Johnk said. “Cheryl does a great job of developing the whole athlete.”
The Cougars’ strength physically is equalled by a mental approach that has them finding ways to win each week.
“You’ve got to have a little luck to make it this far, but I’m a big believer that you make your own breaks,” Johnk said. “Our kids have done all the right things.”
He understands the magnitude of making the title game for this team and for past Gross teams and fans.
“We talked about how other people are sort of living through them, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Johnk said. “This doesn’t happen all the time. I’d like to make this a little more routine than every 29 years.”