~ Photo by Miles Postema
By Randy Gregory
SALINE - A freezing, blustery day greeted a rather sparse gathering of fans for an Michigan High School Athletic Association Regional Finals football game that would normally draw a huge crowd for both teams, Saturday, Nov. 10. The kickoff also got pushed back 30 minutes due to transportation issues for Rockford in getting to the venue. That added to the discomfort of the crowd as they sat and froze while waiting for the delayed start. But that was the only disappointment in what proved to be a hotly contested battle from start to finish.
The finish was an exciting one, as Rockford scored a touchdown on their possession of overtime to pull within a point of Saline at 13-12. They had the added benefit of a pass interference being called against Saline on the play, so the ball was moved to the one-and-a-half yard line for the point after. That left Rockford head coach Ralph Munger with a decision to make. Kick the tying point after - or go for the gusto and the win.
Rams quarterback Chris Corey talks to his offense during the Saline game on Saturday, Nov. 10. ~ Photo by Miles Postema
Having watched his powerful junior fullback Jaiden Friesen grind out consistent chunks of yardage all day against the touted Hornet defense there really was only one choice to be made. Munger sent out the offense and called a dive play for Friesen behind his huge left side of the offensive line (Jonah Erickson, Landen Cole and company). Friesen took the handoff and burst forward, but a lunging defender got ahold of his ankles before he really even got started and he only was able to advance to just inside the one-yard-line while the Saline contingent of fans and players erupted in a joyous celebration of accomplishing a Regional title and advancing to the MHSAA Division 1 State semi-finals.
Coming into the game, few, if any high school football watchers gave Rockford much of a chance against a Saline team that had not only lost only one game all year (against an undefeated Chippewa Valley team in their opener) but had run off 10 consecutive wins, while allowing their opponents only an average of 4.5 points over the last seven games. In addition, they had also just thumped OK Red champion East Kentwood 42-7 a week earlier. The Rams entered the fray with record of 7-4 with five and 3-point wins in their first two playoff games. The seeming David and Goliath description was seemingly never more appropriate than for this game.
Rockford had a surprise for those who carried that analogy with them through the gates on Saturday. The Ram defense, in particular, was superb. Saline achieved exactly seven first downs for the game, including the TD in overtime. The Hornets rushed for exactly 24 yards on the day and suffered six sacks and eight tackles for loss. Cade Klimczak was the main force of the Ram defense with seven tackles and three sacks while proving to be a disruptive force all game long. Luke McLean, Austin Klein and Ian Rodriguez all chipped in with six tackles to aid the Rockford cause. Rodriguez added a late interception that gave Rockford a final chance in regulation to gain the win.
Leading defensive player Cade Klimczak tackles a Saline player during the regional finals. ~ Photo by Miles Postema
The first half highlighted the defenses of both teams, as neither squad advanced further than the other’s 34-yard line. Saline's best chances were after Rockford failed on a pair of fourth down plays and gave them the ball inside Ram territory. But the Ram defense yielded absolutely nothing, and they were unable to take advantage. A pair of Ram miscues on fumbles proved costly on their forays offensively. A bad shotgun snap on the Saline 40 while having a third-down-and-two situation thwarted one drive and a fumbled quarterback/center snap proved detrimental to another drive that had reached the Saline half of the field.
The second half saw the Rams move into Saline territory again with the opening drive after the kickoff. But another fumble after a pass completion that got near the first down pushed Rockford into a fourth down and eight at the Hornet 41. Munger again went for it on a fake punt but the pass fell incomplete and the Hornets took over at their own 41.
The first play of that series represented the only chink in the armor of the Ram defense for the entirety of the game as a quick pass to a Hornet receiver seemingly was going to go for the distance. But a gutsy effort from a Ram defender forced the receiver out of bounds at the Ram 1 setting the stage for an almost certain TD. But the Ram defense had other ideas as three straight running plays netted exactly nothing while leaving them staring at a fourth down and goal play from the one. Out trotted the Saline kicker and it was a 3-0 Hornet lead midway through the third quarter.
Another failed fourth down play from Rockford gave Saline the ball at midfield on their following possession. This time a they were able to net a pair of first downs before settling for a 35-yard field goal that made it a 6-0 game with 8:52 left in the contest. The teams then exchanged punts with the next few possessions but the aftermath of the Hornet punt nearly spelled disaster for the prohibitive favorites. Jack Richardson gathered the punt in at his own 40 along the left sideline. Weaving along and dodging tacklers, Richardson suddenly found himself in the clear and sprinted toward the Hornet end zone. One final cut and he was all alone to dance into the promised land and just like that it was a 6-6 game with only 3:58 to play. But a blocked extra point doomed the score to remain at 6-6 to set the stage for the frantic finish.
Ram wide receiver Nate Boreno protects the ball after a reception amid plenty of Saline defenders. ~ Photo by Miles Postema
Saline received the kickoff and got to their own 41 before having to punt the ball back to Rockford. The Rams got to their own 43 before having to return the favor. A booming punt from Richardson appeared to have pinned the Hornets at their own six, thus assuring overtime but a chop block called on Rockford forced another punt that seemingly gave the Hornets a golden chance to end the contest in regulation while getting the ball at the Ram 46.
Rodriguez pulled off a brilliant interception that he returned to the Rockford 44 and gave the Rams one final chance. Drew Bareno proceeded to hit his brother Nate for a 24-yard completion that gave Rockford the ball at the Hornet 27 and allowed them to send out the field goal unit for a 44-yard attempt that sailed just wide to the left and the game was headed for overtime.
Saline got the ball first and scored on a one-yard run on their second play before converting the PAT to make it 13-6. The Rams’ score came on a halfback pass from Richardson to Nate Bareno on a third-down-and-eight play that he was clearly interfered with on. He shrugged off the grab and easily reeled in the pass to draw the Rams within one, and send the Ram contingent into a frenzy. But hopes went away on the conversion attempt and the thrilling contest concluded with a 13-12 Saline victory.
Friesen led the Ram rushing attack with 101 yards on 22 carries. Drew Bareno was 4-of-10 passing for 63 yards, while Chris Corey was 4-of-7 for 16 yards. Richardson was 1-of-2 for eight yards and the one TD. Nate Bareno led the receiving corps with four catches for 53 yards, while Eli Haddad added a pair of receptions for 33 as well.
The loss ended a remarkable turnaround season for Rockford that saw them start at 1-3 before finishing 7-5 and come up a single yard short of a berth in the MHSAA semi-finals. The Rams will say goodbye to a number of talented seniors who helped key the season. But they also return a sizable number of sophomores and juniors who saw significant action as well. Coupled with the personnel from an 8-1 JV squad, that bodes very well for 2019 for the Rams.
Great job and Go Rams!
Photo by Miles Postema