Mark Ward has transitioned from the sidelines to the front line.
Iowa City Regina’s offensive general has stepped in right where his state championship predecessors left off.
“He’s paid his dues behind Jack Verducci and Nate Streb,” Regina Coach Marv Cook said about the Regals’ current quarterback, who is replacing those state champion Regina signal callers. “Now, he’s getting his turn and making the most of it.”
Ward will attempt to help the top-ranked Regals to be a third straight state championship and 42 consecutive win in the Iowa High School Athletic Association Class 1A state football championship Friday against No. 8 Council Bluffs St. Albert (12-1) at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls, starting at 11:06 a.m. The game will be televised by KCRG 9.2.
The senior could become the third quarterback in three years to claim a title, following two straight 2A crowns.
“I think it’s a special thing, not only just get one let two and possibly a third one,” Ward said. “It’s doing your job and learning from the guys ahead of you.”
A reserve role was frustrating for Ward and his competitive nature. He focused on taking advantage of his position, learning and absorbing as much information as possible, picking Streb’s brain about when and where to deliver the football, to prepare for his time as a starter.
“You have to make the best of the situation and keep getting better,” Ward said. “You know your time is going to come. There’s a time where you’re going to have to take over and put your skill set out there.”
It was a skill set the Regina coaches recognized early. Cook said Ward has worked to turn his weaknesses into strengths, noting he did some things better than previous starters but wasn’t as strong overall.
“From a very young age, we knew Mark had a big arm and a good arm,” Cook said. “We had some dynamic guys there.”
Ward’s ability has been on display, throwing for 1,984 yards and 28 touchdowns, completing 62.9 percent of his passes and averaging 17.7 yards per completion. Ward has added 582 rushing yards and 10 TDs.
Am strength has been his bead and butter, however, Ward, made the biggest strides as a runner and before the snap.
“He’s become a very effective runner,” Cook said. “He’s done a good job of pre-snap decisions.”
The 6-foot-3 Ward’s build allows his rushing ability to complement his throwing talent. In the Regals’ 42-21 semifinal win over Dike-New Hartford, Ward helped break open a 21-21 tie in the fourth quarter with two rushing touchdowns after throwing for two earlier scores.
“It’s just seeing holes and knowing where to go with the ball,” said Ward, crediting his offensive line for his rushing success. “You just have to make plays on your feet if it’s there, running with physicality.
“You have to know you have to get a certain amount of yards and just being able to get it, even if they know where you’re going.”
Ward knows he is going to play football in college, but is undecided. He wants to play at the highest level possible. Cook said Ward has shown the physical traits and intangibles to play at an advanced program next year.
“I think he can play,” Cook said. “He’s playing his best ball down the stretch. I think he’s played his best in the biggest games. He’s a gamer.”
The Regals are far from a one-man show. Alex Balke has been his top target with 774 receiving yards on 46 catches and 14 TDs. Wide receiver Matt Streb has added 653 yards and 11 scores.
Many examples of their big-play potential exists. Ward’s highlight is a 98-yard touchdown pass to Streb in a state quarterfinal win over Maquoketa Valley just two weeks after throwing a 97-yard score to running back Mike Donovan.
“It’s a pretty cool thing when you can break your own 97-yard TD pass (record),” Ward said. “The whole season has been fantastic, being able to come in and go 13-0 to this point and, hopefully, run the table.”
Riley Dixon leads Regina, rushing for 1,585 yards and 14 TDs. Donovan has more than 800 total yards and 14 TDs. The Regals have a balanced attack hard for most teams to match.
“It’s a comforting thing to know the guys around you are going to either pick you up or make a stellar play or bail you out of some situations,” Ward said. “It’s nice to know they’re going to come down with the ball and they’re going to battle for you.”
That effort and Ward’s leadership was apparent in the semifinal. On a critical 4th-and-19 to start the fourth quarter, Ward suggested a play meant to isolated Balke down the middle the field. He lofted a pass that Balke pulled down for the conversion that led to a 21-point burst.
“He loves to play the game,” Cook said. “He’s enjoying the moment and has the ability to play forward. He constantly plays in the moment. I think it’s a great characteristic.
“Anytime the guy you’re looking at to call the plays is calm, cool and collected it’s something that people gravitate to.”
The players, especially the seniors, are a tight-knit group. They have been playing sports together since second grade and some attended the same pre-school. The Regals have bonded and worked hard to continue the Regals’ winning ways.
“This year we kind of came together and we knew we had to get the job done,” Ward said. “We know we had to extend the winning streak.
“There’s a certain sense of pressure with it then there’s a certain sense of responsibility to each other that you have to do everything you can and work as much as you can to get to this point.”
The Falcons advanced to the championship game with an 18-7 win over third-ranked Emmetsburg. St. Albert won four state titles in six seasons between 2004-09. The Falcons were second in 2003 and 2011.
St. Albert presents a challenge with a tough defense led by one of 1A’s top tacklers, senior Teddie Harvey, and junior Tucker Culjat, who has five interceptions. The Falcons have allowed an average of 8.5 points in their 1 wins this season. Cook expects a battle Friday.
“Council Bluffs St. Albert is a great team,” Cook said. “An impressive team.”
IOWA CITY REGINA vs. COUNCIL BLUFFS ST. ALBERT
Time and site: 11:06 a.m. Friday, at UNI-Dome
TV: KCRG 9.2
Records and rankings: No. 1 Regina is 13-0; No. 8 St. Albert is 12-1.
Notable: The Regals are looking to win their third straight state title and 42nd consecutive game, since losing in the 2009 Class 2A state quarterfinal game. Regina survived a challenge from No. 2 Dike-New Hartford in the semifinals, breaking open a 21-21 game in the fourth for a 42-21 win. Mark Ward ranks among the 1A leaders with 1,984 yards and 28 TDs. Riley Dixon provides the biggest rushing threat with 1,585 yards and 14 TDs for Regina. Eighth-ranked Council Bluffs St. Albert has been one of the state’s top 1A teams, reaching the state finals for the seventh time since 2003 winning four titles. Tucker Culjat leads the Falcons with more than 1,300 passing and rushing yards and 24 total touchdowns. He also ranks among 1A leaders with five interceptions.