By Randy Gregory
The 2017 high school football season finally arrived for Rockford on Thursday, August 24th. The opponent (Saline) was highly ranked and the venue (Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor) was a once in a lifetime chance for nearly every player who took the field for the two teams. And in the end, Rockford walked off the field with a huge 14-0 victory behind a superb defensive effort and an opportunistic offense.
Rockford managed to keep Saline off the scoreboard despite suffering a pair of interceptions, a fumble and a blocked punt. Two of the Ram miscues gave the Hornets the ball near midfield and the other two left them inside the Rockford 35-yard line when they began their drives. But at every turn the Ram defense answered the call with flying colors en route to tossing the shutout against a Saline spread offense that routinely scores 40 or more points week after week historically.
“Our team slogan this year is ‘Believe to Achieve’ and that is exactly what our players did for the entire contest, ” said Rockford Coach Ralph Munger. “There was no quit in anybody wearing a Ram uniform from the opening whistle to the final play. Quitting was not an option and I was very pleased with the effort and intensity we showed for the whole game. We made enough things happen on offense and defense to come out on top of a very good opponent.”
The game began in a less than auspicious manner for the Ram defense as Saline spread the field and methodically marched from their own 20 to the Ram 19 on their opening drive. But Rockford defensive coordinator Randy VanderVeen called a timeout at that juncture to regroup the defense. And his words resonated with the team in a resounding manner as Saline was eventually forced to settle for a 40-yard field goal attempt that was short and wide left. After amassing 58 yards in that opening drive, Saline was only able to muster another 155 yards for the balance of the contest against the stout Ram defense.
The Rams then had a punt blocked on their opening possession of the game and Saline took over on the Ram 23 to start their next drive. This one though did nothing but go in reverse for the Hornets and the Rams took over on downs at their own 32. That set the stage for the first points of the game.
Rockford began pounding the football on the ground behind powerful runs from Austin Klein and Jack Richardson to eventually reach the Hornet 24-yard line. Facing a second down and seven from that point Rockford quarterback Jason Whittaker faked a dive before handing off to Ian Rodriguez on a sweep left. Rodriguez got the edge and turned on the jets while going untouched into the end zone at the 5:46 mark of the second quarter to give the Rams a 6-0 lead. Eric Zeboor came on to split the uprights and make it 7-0 and the Rams had a lead they would never relinquish.
The Hornets got a late interception in the second quarter but were again turned away after reaching the Rockford 29. The 7-0 score held as both teams headed to their respective locker rooms.
The second half began the same way the opening half ended for the Ram offense as another interception gave the Hornets the ball at the Rockford 32. However four plays netted exactly six yards and the Hornets again turned the ball over on downs. The next Saline possession was a reprise for them as they turned it over on downs from the Rockford 34. The game had reached a point where the defenses for both teams were dominating and it appeared a big play for one school or the other would probably be decisive in the final outcome.
That big play would come for Rockford on their first possession of the final quarter. The drive began in an unlikely spot on the field as Rockford took over on their own 7-yard line. Maliq Thompson took a pitch wide right on the opening play and gained 18 yards for Rockford. Whittaker ran for seven more on the next play and Klein got another first down for Rockford after a nine-yard jaunt on the following play.
The series of solid runs gave Munger the chance to finally take a deep shot against a Saline defense that was steadily creeping forward in an effort to get the ball back in short order for another chance to tie the score. Whittaker ran play action and the Saline secondary bit on it as he dropped back before spying a wide open Eli Haddad streaking down the left side. Whittaker arced a tight spiral about 40 yards downfield that looked as if it might go just a shade long and fall harmlessly to the turf. But Haddad found another gear and stretched out his right hand while in full stride and cradled it in with that single hand before speeding untouched into the end zone. The circus catch gave Rockford a 14-0 lead (following Zeboor’s second PAT) with 8:39 to play in the game.
Haddad wasn’t through with his heroics just yet though as he added an interception of his own just four plays later to put the Rams in excellent shape to close things out. But the Ram offense again did their best Jekyll and Hyde imitation and fumbled the ball back to Saline near midfield to leave the Hornets with a glimmer of hope. But that was all it was as four plays later the Rams got the ball back and ran out the clock to seal the 14-0 win.
“We really appreciate the outstanding support of our parents and our fans who made the long trip to Ann Arbor to support us,” said Munger. “It was a very special opportunity for our players to take the field in the Big House, which is a unique venue. When you think about how many great players have gone down that tunnel onto the field it is unbelievable.”
Whittaker was 4 for 9 passing for 80 yards with a touchdown and a pair of interceptions. He also led Rockford on the ground with 60 yards on just 6 carries. Rodriguez added 44 while also totaling six attempts. Haddad had the single reception for 59 yards to lead the receiving corps.
Khale Showers led the Rockford defense with 11 tackles. Chase Novak and Alex Miller both added eight stops while Marcus Remtema and Rodriguez also chipped in with six apiece.