Long friendship drives Woodlan football players Ah’lan Howard and Jack Rhoades

Woodlan High School seniors Ah'lan Howard, left, and Jack Rhoades pose before practice Tuesday at Woodlan. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of News-Sentinel.com)

Their football friendship dates back to the Police Athletic League’s Cowboys in New Haven, when Ah’lan Howard and Jack Rhoades were 8 or 9 years old.

They grew closer during their days at Highland Terrace Elementary School, New Haven Middle School and into their freshman year at New Haven High School. Then Rhoades made a decision that could have altered things forever: He decided to switch high schools from New Haven to Woodlan.

“It was due to a few things,” Rhoades said, without getting into specifics. “I was really nervous about leaving New Haven, where I went my whole life.”

He told Howard that he had decided to make the significant move before his sophomore year.

“I was just like, I’ll go with you,” Howard said. “We thought Woodlan would be a better fit and came out here. It’s been a good move for us.”

It has indeed been a good move for the duo. Now seniors, they have developed into key players for the sixth-ranked Warriors (11-2), who will play at No. 1 Eastbrook (13-0) for the Class 2A semistate title at 7 p.m. Friday. Rhoades plays running back and safety with Howard at wide receiver and cornerback.

“When they came over here, I had no idea who they were,” Woodlan coach Sherwood Haydock said. “I heard a couple kids were transferring over. I was surprised. I thought, ‘These guys are going to be pretty good.’ I’m thankful for that. I didn’t know they were such close friends.”

Their initiation as sophomores brought some ups and downs, Haydock said. They worked their way into the regular rotation – Howard at defensive back and Rhoades as a back-up to workhorse running back Mitchell VanBrocklin. Rhoades ended up with nearly 1,000 yards rushing as the No. 2 back.

“I think the biggest surprise for them was the level of football that we play,” Haydock said. “Coming from 4A to a little small school, I think they were a bit surprised that we have guys who are big and strong and fast. They adjusted.”

The impact of the two players as seniors is reflected in their production.

Rhoades has 235 carries for 1,944 yards rushing (162 yards per game) and 24 touchdowns. He has a pair of interceptions on defense.

Howard has 27 receptions for 620 yards with nine touchdowns. He has picked off three passes on defense.

They were thrust into an unusual dynamic last week, however, when Rhoades sat out with a one-game suspension after being ejected the week before for kicking a Central Noble player after being tackled in the sectional title game.

“We’ve always been on the field together,” Howard said. “That was the first time in a long time last week that he wasn’t on the field with me.”

Howard assured Rhoades the team had no intentions of letting the season end with Rhoades sidelined.

“Ah’lan told me, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’re going to pull this through for you,’ and he did,” Rhoades said.

With Rhoades out, Woodlan leaned on senior Amarion Hicks, who rushed for 234 yards and three touchdowns in a 40-26 regional win over North Newton. “Jack’s a big role in our offense, but coach says ‘Next man up,’ so I had to try to step up,” Hicks said.

Haydock said the team probably missed Rhoades’ play at safety more than they did at running back. The coach felt Rhoades would have made the right read to thwart a couple of long running plays by North Newton.

But Woodlan survived, and now it sits one step from a trip to the state championship game.

“Seeing my team do so well really boosted me up,” Rhoades said.

The Warriors have fallen short in the postseason the last two years – losing in the semistate at Whiting when Howard and Rhoades were sophomores and losing in a sectional upset at South Adams last season.

Howard, Rhoades and their teammates have one last chance to make a trip to the state finals.

“I feel like we came together after those losses in the regular season,” Howard said. “We realize if we lose in the postseason, it’ll be our last.”