by Randy Gregory
Rockford football coach Ralph Munger made little secret of the fact that his charges had no interest in a shared conference crown this year. Win at Grand Haven on Friday, October 19th and they wouldn’t have to share, lose and West Ottawa gets a piece of the title. Selfishness won out as the Rams dominated from start to finish en route to a 45-7 triumph over the Buccaneers that left them at 5-0 in OK Red play (7-2 overall) and the undisputed champs.
It was the seventh league championship for the Rams in the last eight years and put the cherry on top of their eighteenth consecutive trip to the Michigan High School Athletic Association’s state playoffs. But it didn’t come without it’s challenges according to Munger.
“We really had to battle through the injuries this season,” said Munger. “It is huge for us to be outright champs and it is something we will cherish. It says a lot about the kids and the effort they have put forth all season.”
It didn’t take long for Rockford to assert their authority on a surprisingly comfortable night for football. For the second consecutive week the opening kickoff provided the backdrop for an early Ram score.
Grand Haven sent the opening kickoff on a high arc right to the doorstep of the Rockford goal line. Jared Johnson gathered it in and teetered precariously on the precipice of the end zone. If he touched the line the Rams would get the ball at their own 20. Instead he took one step forward and handed the ball to the upback and the Rams set the literal wheel in motion on the starburst return. Out of the maze burst Devin Jager with the ball expertly concealed as he sprinted forward with the bewildered Buccaneers wondering which of the potential ball carriers they should tackle. By the time they realized the ball was in Jager’s hands it was too late and he was on his way to a 99-yard touchdown.
“Last week we saw what Grandville did on their kicks so we were able to execute that lateral,” said Rockford special team’s coordinator Steve Dengler. “This time we knew Grand Haven had a good kicker and we told Jerad he may have to kind of walk the tightrope back there when he caught the ball. He did it and we executed well and got on the board early again. I’m just glad we finally got the chance to run a starburst again, it seems like it has been forever since we had the opportunity. We have another couple tricks available but you never know if you will get the chance to use them.”
Casey Watters nailed the first of his six successive extra points and it was a 7-0 Ram lead just 15 seconds into the game. There was no further scoring in the opening quarter.
But things changed dramatically for Rockford in the second stanza. First it was Connor Grady with a five-yard run at the 11:28 mark to make it 14-0. Things slowed for a bit to set the stage for an exciting final 2:22 of the opening half for the Rockford faithful in attendance. Kyle Short hit Austin McKellar with a seven-yard strike to make it 21-0 at that 2:22 point. After a quick three and out from the Bucs and a nice punt return from Hunter Smith, Short found Cody Garnsey with a 12-yard TD pass at the 1:11 point to make it 28-0 Rams. And they weren’t done yet following another quick defensive stop. In “Short” order the Rams quickly got to the Grand Haven 22. Watters trotted out and split the uprights with a 39-yard field goal at the horn to make it a 31-0 Rockford lead at the half.
The second half was about whether the Rams would set the running clock in motion by getting at least 35 points ahead. That happened quickly as Sam Reinke went 39 yards up the middle to make it 38-0. The only Buc score of the night ensued on the following possession to stall the running clock, but Chase Hankins fired a dart to Jimmy Scales that restored the Rams lead to 45-7 and the running clock was in order for the balance of the contest.
“Our defense was pretty solid again tonight, but now we have to kick things up a notch,” said Munger. “When you get to the playoffs you will be playing a high quality opponent and you have to be at your best. We are looking for consistency and improvement and I am not so sure we are doing that on a regular basis. I thought Chase Hankins played really well tonight and he has really come on as the season has progressed. Now we all need to do that and we will see where that takes us in the playoffs.”
The stalwart Ram defense allowed only 119 total yards, including -1 rushing. They had nine tackles for loss and one interception from Johnson. Tackles were at a premium however as the Bucs simply didn’t have the opportunity to run many plays. Randy Garvin had six tackles and KC Zenner and Brent Showers had five apiece. The defensive stat of the night belonged to Jeff Baldwin. He had only four tackles total. But, of that total, he was credited with 3.5 tackles for loss that included a net of minus 22 yards.
Reinke had six carries for 65 yards and Hankins added 57 on eight attempts to lead the rushing attack that accumulated 216 yards on the night. Short had a solid game through the air with 128 yards on a 12 for 21 showing and a pair of touchdowns. Hankins only attempt was the 33 yard scoring toss to Scales. Nick Simms had six receptions for 50 yards and McKellar added 48 yards on his four receptions.
Photos by Jimmy Cooper