~ Photo by Connie Hill
After beginning the 2018 football season with a mark of 1-3, it would probably have been easy to envision a scenario where a 23-year stretch of making the playoffs came to a conclusion. The team and coaching staff had other thoughts and instead of wallowing in self-pity, they rallied to end the year at 7-5, and came within a single yard of earning a berth in the state semifinals.
At 5-4 during the regular season the Rams made the playoffs through the back door as they had to rely on playoff points rather than compiling the requisite six wins needed to procure an automatic berth. That made it 24 consecutive berths and allowed the team to sit alone atop the Michigan High School Athletic Association record books while competing in the state's largest school division. They were previously tied with Iron Mountain North Dickinson at 23 consecutive trips.
Rockford fell in their opener to a powerful contingent from suburban Chicago (Loyola Academy) by the score of 27-7. They then beat Lowell, a traditional power that experienced a down season, 36-0 to even their mark at 1-1. That was followed up with a disappointing 45-40 loss to West Ottawa that left them at 1-2. When that was followed up with a 33-14 loss to a solid squad from Muskegon Mona Shores, hopes for another playoff trip rapidly began to diminish.
"I felt like we really gave away that game to West Ottawa and also felt we had a decent chance to beat Mona Shores had we played a bit more disciplined and consistently," said Rockford coach Ralph Munger. "The West Ottawa game especially hurt, and we knew as a coaching staff and as players we needed to regroup at that point. It is a great credit to all concerned that we were able to rally the troops and finish as strongly as we did."
"We break the season down into thirds during the first nine games," said Munger. "After starting 1-2 and then dropping that third contest to West Ottawa, we began to wonder if maybe this just wasn't going to be our year. But, we knew that we had a couple of games coming up with favorable match ups in our favor and felt that could get us going in the right direction."
The Rams easily won the next two games and began the hoped-for rebound, as they shut out Grand Haven 21-0 and dominated Caledonia 42-6 to bring their record to 3-3 to set the stage for a difficult final trio of games against Hudsonville, Grandville and East Kentwood who comprised the upper echelon of the always powerful OK Red conference.
In what would portend to a solid ending to the season, the Rams noticeably improved nearly every facet of their performance against the gauntlet to win two of those games (13-7 over Hudsonville and 42-20 against Grand Haven) setting the table for a chance to claim a share of the conference title in the finale against East Kentwood. The Falcons had run roughshod over the rest of the conference while putting up 50 points per contest and would secure a solo title with a win over Rockford. The Rams managed to stay within 14-10 while driving for a late fourth quarter score that would set them up for the win. Multiple fumbles proved problematic and the Falcons emerged with a 28-17 win to earn the crown.
"It was really kind of a roller coaster season for the first nine games," said Munger. "But we never really allowed ourselves to get too high or too low after various results. That enabled the team to play hard and continue their growth both individually and as a team. The captains were a big key as they led by example. When the kids saw that their captains were working hard it encouraged them to work harder and that led to everyone following their lead."
The 5-4 record ensured the Rams would be on the road for the entirety of their playoff run. That was not a factor, however, as the Rams dominated the majority of their first-round game against Traverse City West before settling for a 18-13 win. Next on the docket was a rematch against Hudsonville. This one proved even more competitive than the regular season contest as the Rams rallied late for a thrilling 24-21 win and earned another district title. 2018 marked the 16th consecutive year that Rockford won at least their playoff opener and represented the 14th time Rockford won a minimum of two games at playoff time.
That sent Rockford to Saline for Regional action to square off with a Hornet team that trounced East Kentwood 42-7 a week earlier. Given little chance, the Rams responded with by far their best defensive effort of the year before falling 13-12 in overtime. Rockford went for the win in overtime against Saline after matching their touchdown. Despite a penalty that allowed them to run their conversion attempt from the one-and-a-half-yard line, the Hornet defense turned Rockford away and they came up a yard short of living to play another day.
“In retrospect, I felt we could have been at least two games better record-wise, but it was still a successful season," said Munger. "We were able to find a different gear in the post season. To come up just short when you have advanced to the final eight in your division shows that we had enough guys that believed in the process to enable us to end the year on a huge upswing."
Rockford had six different players receive recognition as All-Conference performers in the OK Red. On offense, juniors Aidan Hieshetter and Jaiden Friesen earned accolades as an offensive lineman and fullback, respectively. Defensively, outside linebacker Jarrett Plekes, defensive lineman Cade Klimczak and cornerback Alex Miller (all seniors) were honored. In addition, jack-of-all-trades senior Jack Richardson was honored for his special teams’ prowess.
With a plethora of offensive returners who saw considerable action, and a veteran secondary, the future looks promising in 2019. Six sophomores were on the varsity roster for the entirety of the season but that proved to be little but a distraction to a junior varsity that also went 8-1, providing an additional security blanket for the Rams.
~ Photo by Connie Hill
~ Photo by Connie Hill