By Randy Gregory
Rockford stretched its winning streak to seven games on Friday October 26th with a 38-7 victory over the Traverse City West Titans at Ted Carlson Memorial Stadium in Rockford. With the win, the 8-2 Rams advance to the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) Division 1 Region 1 District 1 championship game where they will take on West Ottawa in a rematch of a game the Rams won by a count of 24-14 earlier this season. Rockford will once again host the game with the kickoff slated for 7:00 P.M. on Friday, November 2nd at Ted Carlson Memorial Stadium.
Rockford coach Ralph Munger was pleased with the outcome but still feels the Rams have a vast amount of room for improvement in many areas as the playoffs progress.
“It was really a tale of two halves tonight for us,” said Munger. “I was pleased with the way the offense came out and executed in the second half, but there was really not of a lot of inspired play from our guys at the game’s onset. We absolutely must come out with more passion next week and regroup as a team to figure out what buttons to push. We have struggled all year to develop any rhythm offensively and consequently we haven’t been able to hit on all cylinders.”
The Titans actually got on the board first on the strength of a 33-yard touchdown pass at the 4:48 mark of the first quarter. The subsequent extra point made it a 7-0 lead and a small but vocal contingent of Traverse City West fans felt a long awaited victory over the Rams could be in the cards when they quickly forced a Ram three and out that gave them the ball back at their own 14. But Ram senior cornerback Jared Johnson quieted them immediately with a diving interception on the next play from scrimmage at the Titan 39.
The Rams methodically marched the distance in nine plays to knot things up at 7-7 on a one-yard touchdown plunge from Sam Reinke with only 15.9 seconds to play in the opening stanza. It was only the opening salvo for what would turn out to be a huge night for Reinke.
TC West tried to respond and made what would turn out to be their best drive over the balance of the contest by immediately reaching the Rockford 21 on their ensuing possession. But the Ram defense returned to their normal miserly ways by stuffing the Titans on their fourth down attempt. The Rams also punted on their next possession but that set the stage for a strange call that set the tone for the rest of the night.
Facing a fourth down and three from their own 28-yard line, the Titans inexplicably tried an ill-conceived pass that fell harmlessly to the turf and set the Rams up in excellent field position. The Rams wasted little time capitalizing as Kyle Short hit a wide open Reinke in the right flat for a 17-yard TD pass with 3:11 to play in the opening half.
Short had a solid night passing that could have been better had the Rams not dropped multiple passes early in the contest. But the finally healthy Short, who has battled a stress fracture in his foot all year long, refused to lay any blame on his teammates for the early miscues.
“I can’t let dropped passes affect my game because I made a lot of mistakes throwing the ball tonight too,” said Short. “I am finally back to near 100% physically and we were able to do some good things in the passing game tonight. Now we just need to build off of this game and improve next week.”
The Rams used that passing game to get in position for one last score before the half. Short connected on five of six passes in one stretch that enabled Casey Watters to nail a 30-yard field goal just before the halftime horn. That made it a 17-7 Ram lead when the two teams headed to the locker room.
The second half was all Rockford as the Rams made it readily apparent that they had arrived offensively by marching for touchdowns on their first three possessions of the second half. Rockford drove 78 yards (12 plays), 38 yards (seven plays) and 53 yards in only three plays to erase any doubt as to the eventual outcome. Reinke scored the first two TDs on runs of seven and one-yards and Short hooked up with Ryan Donley on a beautifully thrown and caught 29-yard touchdown pass over the middle to complete the night’s scoring. For his part, Watters drilled all five of his extra point attempts. Connor Grady set up the middle of the three second half tallies by recovering a fumble at the Titan 38.
Ram senior co-captain Connor Darby is another Ram who has battled his share of misfortune on the injury front this year. But he feels, as other Rams do, that the team is starting to mesh as some of the wounded have made their way back to the gridiron.
“It is getting better every week (groin and abductor injuries) and I think we are making some strides as a team and getting healthier every week as well,” said Darby. “We still have a lot of room for improvement but it will be nice to be playing the game in front of our home crowd.”
Munger also appreciates the fact that his charges are playing in front of a partisan Ram contingent but he still feels that the opportunity to move on to regional play is going to be a tall task for a team that still makes too many mistakes for his liking.
“We have been pretty solid defensively all year but we need to get better at covering the short to mid range passes,” said Munger. “ I think Traverse City West felt like they were outmatched man for man in their ability to run the ball against our defense so they threw it around all night. They had some success and it is something we need to work on. The stakes get higher and the competition gets tougher so we need to adjust our level of play correspondingly. But it is sure nice that we get another game here in front of our great students and community.”