Photo by Connie Hill
By Randy Gregory
The Rams were deeply tested in the Michigan High School Athletic Association Division 1 football district finals at Hudsonville on Friday, Nov. 2. Rockford carried a 14-13 lead into the final quarter, but the host Eagles took a 21-14 lead just over two minutes into the quarter after a touchdown and successful two-point conversion. The Eagles then forced a Ram punt and appeared to have all of the momentum in the world after taking possession at their own 25 with under seven minutes remaining in the game.
But, the Rams pushed the Eagles into their own punt formation while losing five yards in three plays. That set the stage for a play that completely flipped the tone of the contest in the Rams’ favor. The ball was snapped to the Hudsonville punter who rolled to his left in an effort to get off their customary rugby punt. Ram junior defensive back Dylan Dams broke through the line, and with the help of Taylor Green, the duo cleanly blocked the football which went spinning back into the Eagle end zone. The Hudsonville punter smartly pushed the ball out of the end zone for a safety that cut the lead to a far more tenuous 21-16 margin.
Forced to kick from their own 20 following the safety, the Eagles opted to kick it deep to Rockford. Alex Miller reeled in the kick and returned it to the Ram 43 to begin the ultimately decisive drive for Rockford. The Rams used the first three plays of the drive to net exactly 10 yards and a crucial first down. The final five yards was covered on a key pass from sophomore quarterback Chris Corey to senior tight end Cade Klimczak. On the next play, Corey handed off to senior halfback Jack Richardson who started out on a sweep to the left side. Richardson cut back to the right after gaining the edge and found himself in a foot race towards the Eagle goal line. Seeing that he was going to come up about 10 yards shy of the end zone, Richardson made a second cut back the other way evading multiple Eagle defenders to finish the thrilling TD run and give Rockford a 22-21 lead.
Rockford then went for a two-point conversion of their own in an effort to push the lead to three points. Having a 6'6" wide receiver paid dividends for the Rams on that attempt as Corey lofted a pass to senior wide receiver Nate Bareno that he easily hauled in to make it a 24-21 contest, with only 3:58 left to play.
Hudsonville appeared to reach inside the Rockford 10 on a long pass with just under two minutes to play, but a key offensive holding call pushed them back towards midfield before Bareno batted down a desperation heave on a fourth-down play to give the ball back to Rockford. Three knees later, it was in the books as a 24-21 Ram win and the playoff train kept rolling along for Rockford.
"Last week we got a lesson in the importance of special teams in football games," said Rockford head coach Ralph Munger. "This time around it was crucial in earning the win and we live to play another week as a result. That blocked punt was just one of several plays made by our special teams and showed yet again what a great job coach (Steve) Dengler does for us in that aspect."
Rockford took a 7-0 lead after receiving the opening kickoff and mixing the run and pass in a beautiful drive to kick things off. Rockford covered 60 yards in 10 plays to net the score. Junior fullback Jaiden Friesen did the honors on a two-yard dive to give Rockford a 7-0 lead following sophomore kicker Teagen Lenderink's conversion with 6:10 left in the opening quarter.
Neither team made a substantial march toward their opponent's end zone over the vast majority of the rest of the half and it appeared that the half may end with the Rams holding that 7-0 lead. The Eagles changed quarterbacks on their final drive of the half and went to the passing game before finally knotting the game up at 7-7 with a 16-yard scoring pass with only 36 seconds left in the half.
That score again appeared destined to end the half with the 7-7 tie, but the Rams and coach Munger had other ideas. Junior wide receiver Eli Haddad gathered in the kickoff following the Eagle TD at his own 15 and proceeded to cut, bob and weave his way through multiple Eagle defenders before being finally dragged down at the Hudsonville 33 with 19 seconds left in the half. The Rams netted six yards on a Friesen run before burning their final timeout with only 14 seconds left on the clock. The Rams then lined up in a multiple wide receiver formation that forced the Eagles to burn their final timeout.
Making a subtle formation adjustment, but not changing the play call, the Rams found lightning in a bottle on the next play. Corey immediately fired a lateral to Bareno in the left flat. Seeing the ball thrown out so quickly the Eagle secondary came flying up to stop the dangerous Bareno from churning up field. Bareno instead pulled up immediately and fired a perfect pass downfield to Haddad that was hauled in by the wide-open receiver in the back of the end zone with only six seconds showing on the clock. Lenderink was again perfect on the PAT and it was a 14-7 Ram lead at the break.
"We had a couple of plays that we were preparing this week that we were waiting for the perfect time to unleash and that was it," said Munger. "Everything played out in perfect fashion and we were able to cash in. That was great execution by the kids and was a big play late that gave us a huge boost heading into the locker room."
With the win the Rams now stand at 7-4 on the season. They will await the winner of the East Kentwood-Saline game that will be played in Saline Saturday, Nov. 3, at 1 p.m. The regional will be a road game for the Rams, but the time and opponent are unknown as of the writing of this article. The win tonight marks the 14th time the Rams have advanced past the first two rounds of the playoffs. 2018 is also the 16th consecutive season that Rockford has won their opening playoff game to extend the incredible legacy of Munger and his ever-changing, but always successful, teams through the years.
Photo by Connie Hill