by Melissa Martin
Making big plays in crunch time and doing what it takes to lead his team to victory have long been attributes of Joe Labas.
A standout in football, basketball and baseball throughout his career at Brecksville-Broadview Heights High School, Labas has consistently been recognized by coaches as one of the most competent and competitive players they’ve ever coached. Among them is Bees head football coach Martin Poder, who said he was sold on Labas as a dual-threat quarterback when he saw him take the field in 2018.
“From a purely athletic perspective, Joe is easily one of the most athletic kids I’ve ever coached,” Poder told the media in 2020 after Labas, a 2021 Bees graduate, announced his commitment to the University of Iowa. “He can do a lot.”
Despite his experience and accolades from coaches and teammates, Labas, 20, admitted he wasn’t able to escape a major case of the jitters as he stood on the sidelines of Nashville’s Nissan Stadium Dec. 31. The Hawkeyes were about to play the University of Kentucky Wildcats in the TransPerfect Music City Bowl, and Labas was named Iowa’s starting quarterback.
There was only one problem, the 6-foot-4, 207-pounder said. Though he had spent two seasons practicing with the Hawkeyes, the redshirt freshman had not thrown a pass in a college game. And there he was, about to take the field during a nationally televised bowl game in front of 42,313 fans.
“Absolutely no pressure, right?” Labas joked.
Three weeks before the Hawkeyes’ trip to Nashville, Labas learned the quarterback slot was his after starting quarterback Spencer Petras sustained a shoulder injury and backup Alex Padilla left the team through the transfer portal.
“I called my parents right away and just couldn’t wait to tell them the news,” Labas said.
The celebration ended quickly as Labas had a lot of preparation to do mentally and physically. He was thoroughly familiar with the offense, and head coach Kirk Ferentz added several new plays for the. bowl game
By game day, Labas said he was more than ready. All he wanted to do was get on the field and do what he does best.
“I knew I wasn’t going to settle down until I got out there,” he said, “and it felt like the [pre-game festivities] took forever.”
Shortly after kickoff, Labas felt at home in the pocket. He picked up where he left off in high school, where he racked up more than 2,300 yards passing and took the Bees to the Division II playoffs his junior (2019) and senior (2020) years.
Labas completed his first three passes in the Music City Bowl, which he said was all he needed to find his groove. By game’s end, Labas had completed 14 of 24 passes for 139 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions.
He learned the hard way that players at the collegiate level are vastly different from those in high school.
“Everyone is bigger, faster, stronger,” Labas said. “And yes, they hit a lot harder too.”
Labas took his licks in stride, however, and the Hawkeyes ended the day with a 21-0 win over the Wildcats, the same team that defeated Iowa to open the 2022 season.
The trophy wasn’t the only prize the Hawkeyes took home. The team also left with bragging rights, as Iowa posted the first shutout in TransPerfect Music City Bowl history.
Back to work
With the bowl game victory under his belt, the 2019 Suburban League National Division Offensive Player of the year is back at the University of Iowa, where he is now a sophomore majoring in entrepreneurial leadership with a minor in business management.
Labas was credited by the coaching staff with using his mobility at key times to extend plays, which added a new dimension to the offense. He was also applauded for keeping his composure.
“He played with poise out there and he has a little juice to him, so that is fun to see,” Ferentz said.
But Labas knows he has more work to do, particularly if he wants to land the starting quarterback job next season. He will be competing against Petras, who is expected to return from his injuries, as well as two transfers and a freshman.
“Now I can look at the mistakes I made during the bowl game and work on making improvements,” Labas said. “But the important thing is I have some experience at this level under my belt and it just gets better from here.” ∞