Rams regional football champs

Highlanders’ late surge gives Rockford scare

by TIM COOPER

A cool, cloudy day greeted the spectators at the Ted for the regional final football game on Saturday, Nov. 13. For the first three quarters of Rockford’s match-up with the Howell Highlanders, it appeared to be business as usual, with the Rams scoring consistently and their defense keeping the Howell offense at bay.

Zach Schmuck grapples with a Howell defender. Photo by JIM COPPER

The Rockford offense struck first, driving 80 yards on 11 plays, with Mark LaPrairie throwing three consecutive passes to his primary receiver, Neil VanderLaan. The two combined for 61 yards on the drive, including a 39-yard pass. LaPrairie later found Brandon Lubenow for an eight-yard touchdown pass to complete the drive to give the Rams a 7-0 lead.

Rockford’s defense proved tough, keeping the Howell offense out of the end zone for its first three possessions, while the offense, in workmanlike fashion moved the ball down the field, building a 17-point lead.

Howell finally got on the board when Derrick Palma broke through the Ram defense for six yards, capping off a 77-yard drive.

Rockford closed out the first half by again showing off the “LaPrairie-VanderLaan Connection.” LaPrairie found VanderLaan four times on the nine-yard drive, gaining 73 of the 75 yards on the drive, including a four-yard touchdown pass. The Rams took a 24-7 lead into halftime.

Rockford’s only score of the second half came when “The Connection” struck again, with LaPrairie finding VanderLaan wide open. VanderLaan raced 70 yards to give the Rams a 31-7 lead early in the third quarter.

Howell’s offense then found its footing, attempting to mount a comeback as they scored 20 unanswered points. A touchdown with 1:31 left on the clock brought the Highlanders within four points of the Rams. To no one’s surprise, Howell attempted an on-side kick, which was recovered by Rockford’s Zach Schmuck, beginning the mad minute of football.

Ram defensive backs Colin Remtema and KC Zenner team up to stop a Howell receiver. Photo by JIM COOPER

With the Rams looking to ice the game by gaining one final first down, the Highlanders found new life when the Rams’ Brady Gent fumbled the ball on second down with 45 seconds left. Howell recovered the fumble, and took possession at their own 44.

A questionable holding penalty moved the ball to the Ram 46, where Highlander quarterback Greg Cauley threw the ball 15 yards to receiver Josh Gardner. With 35 seconds left on the clock, Rockford Coach Ralph Munger called a timeout to rally his defense.

In the huddle, Munger decided to use wide receiver VanderLaan at the cornerback position, allowing Ryan Fischer to act as a spy whose sole purpose was to fly to the football.

And fly he did.

Fischer managed to leap above the Howell receivers and come down with the ball on the Rockford six-yard line, returning the ball to the 18. With only 26 seconds remaining, LaPrairie was able to take a knee, giving the Rams their ninth regional title.

Mark LaPrairie drops back to set up a touchdown pass to Neil VanderLaan. Photo by JIM COOPER

After the game, Munger said, “Howell is big, fast and physical. They’re a well-coached team. Even when we had them down, they kept coming at us. It almost seemed as if we quit playing for a little while, but we made the big play at the end.”

The Rams will travel to Lansing Everett High School on Saturday, Nov. 20, to take on the Plymouth Wildcats in the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) state semifinals at 1:00 p.m. The victor will earn the right to play for the MHSAA Division I state championship at Ford Field next weekend.

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