by Randy Gregory
Rockford made the journey across the state on Saturday, November 10th to take on the juggernaut that was the Clarkston football team. The Wolves had rarely been tested en route to their 11-0 record and consensus ranking as the top team in the state in Division 1. But the Rams were the ones who ultimately enforced their will against a bigger and faster opponent. And when the dust had settled it was Rockford who advanced with a 25-14 triumph in the Regional title contest for Division 1 for the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA).
With the win the 10-2 Rams advance to their third consecutive trip to the Division 1 semifinals. The opponent will be a familiar one as the 8-4 Shamrocks of Detroit Catholic Central stand as the final hurdle between Rockford and their sixth trip to a title game in the last 16 years.
“That is a powerful football team we knocked off today,” said Rockford coach Ralph Munger. “Randy VanderVeen (defensive coordinator) came up with a great game plan defensively and we were able to do enough things offensively to take control. It was a game of momentum and emotion and we were able to force them into doing things they aren’t used to offensively. We are just glad to be able to keep on playing.”
The first quarter was basically a game of push and shove with both teams making minimal inroads offensively. The Wolves broke off one long run and got to the Ram 35 before having a 52-yard field goal clank off the right upright with a strong breeze at their backs. The Rams would be the first team to dent the scoreboard with a 13-play 59-yard drive that spanned parts of the first and second quarters. Connor Darby capped it off with a 5-yard sweep around the left side that made it 6-0 at the 7:53 mark of the second quarter. The point after was blocked however and the score remained that way.
Clarkston was able to advance to the Rockford 46 on the subsequent drive before punting and pinning the Rams at their own three-yard line. That set Rockford up for a play that set the tone for the duration of the contest.
On the next play, Ram quarterback Kyle Short ran a play action fake before floating a pass to Scott Kaule in the right flat that seemed destined for maybe about ten yards. But Kaule had other plans as he first skirted a lunging tackle around the fifteen and proceeded to race up the right sideline. He was never touched and never stopped until crossing the goal line 97 yards later to increase the lead to 12-0. That gave the Rams touchdowns on two consecutive plays and, following Casey Watters successful conversion, it was a 13-0 Ram lead with 6:19 still to play in the opening half.
“I never expected to go all the way on that play,” said Kaule. “I was able to turn the corner and Ryan Donley made a great block downfield that cleared the way and I just ran as hard as I could. The offensive line and receivers did an excellent job of blocking all day and I was just in the right place to take advantage of their efforts.”
The Rams had all the momentum at that point and had it not been for a case of the dropsies, they may have put this one away at the half. Following another botched field goal attempt from Clarkston, The Rams quickly advanced near midfield before fumbling away a simple jet sweep handoff that was recovered by Clarkston at the Ram 41. Clarkston took advantage two plays later with a 33-yard touchdown pass with only 28.2 seconds to play in the first half. The Rams then proceeded to fumble away the ensuing kickoff to improbably give the Wolves a chance to take the lead headed into the locker room. But the Ram defense stood tall again and forced a 23-yard field goal attempt that this time clanked off the left upright. That left the Rams holding a tenuous 13-7 halftime lead that should have been appreciably larger.
“Our whole game plan was to try and create a picket fence defensively today,” said VanderVeen. “We wanted them to have to beat multiple defenders and not give up the big play. They are built on the power running game and I felt we did a pretty solid job taking them out of their comfort zone. We took what they gave us as far as pressure and tried not to get too far upfield and open up lanes. All in all, I was happy with our effort today.”
The second half opened up with the Rams receiving and they made an immediate statement after starting at their own 25. Short floated a beautiful pass for 32 yards to Austin McKellar on a third down and 9 play to put the Rams in position. And Munger punctuated the drive with a play that has become synonymous with Ram football. On second down and ten from the Wolves 28, Short dropped back to seemingly pass before expertly slipping the ball into Sam Reinke on a wraparound draw. Reinke darted ahead and juked twice before hitting pay dirt and giving the Rams a 19-7 edge with 8:30 to play in the third stanza.
At that point the Wolves erased any thoughts of sticking with their mantra of power football. They would occasionally hit some mid range passes for some success, but the writing was on the wall and the Ram defense held firm over the duration of the contest.
“We haven’t faced a defense like that all season long,” said Clarkston coach Kurt Richardson. “We have been successful doing what we wanted to in every contest until today. The Rockford defense was definitely the difference in the game.”
Connor Grady and Jared Johnson came up with interceptions and KC Zenner made several deft deflections of thrown balls to keep the Wolves at bay. There was also a huge stop by the Ram defense on a fourth and two play that stymied the Clarkston offense at nearly every turn.
“Clarkston is a rough and tough team and you have to tip your cap to them,” said Ram linebacker Brent Showers. “We expected them to come out and try to run the ball and I felt we did a great job of forcing them into other options.”
Clarkston got their final TD following another Ram fumble. The score came on an 8-yard pass with 2:23 remaining to make it a 19-14 Ram lead and pump some signs of life back into fans who had been streaming towards the exits moments earlier. But the onside kick sailed out of bounds and the Rams took over at their own 48-yard line. Following a three-yard loss on the first play, Kaule slammed the door shut on Clarkston. Taking a handoff from Short, Kaule swept right and went untouched for a 55-yard score that erased all doubts as to the eventual outcome. For the third time the Rams went for two and were denied to make it a 25-14 Ram lead and eventual win.
“This was a great team win today,” said Short. “Our defense played tremendously against an excellent offense and we were able to make enough plays offensively to take advantage of our opportunities. Now we need to keep building on the momentum we have generated next week.”