By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal

A big throng of Reeths-Puffer fans turned out Friday night to find out if their resurgent 3-1 Rockets were the real deal.

A few hours later they got their answer, leaving their excited student section chanting “Four and one! Four and one!”

The Rockets, following years of disappointment and a three-victory season in 2013, are suddenly a force to be dealt with. They proved it with a convincing 36-16 victory over Kenowa Hills Friday in the O-K Black Conference opener for both schools.

Suddenly the Rockets are two wins away from clinching their first state playoff appearance since 2007. And they’re starting to believe they could be a contender for the conference championship.

“We knew what we had in the locker room – kids with character, kids that are hungry to win,” said Reeths-Puffer coach Kyle Jewett. “We knew we had the potential, but to see it is a good thing.”

The Rockets’ first big league challenge comes next Friday against defending champion Zeeland East.

“They’re going to be the best team we’ve faced so far,” Jewett said. “We’ve got to put in the work this week. We’re a team that’s beginning to see how far we can go with our game plan. If the execution is there and we can get more consistent, we can compete with anybody.”

They say good teams make opponents pay for their mistakes, and Reeths-Puffer followed that script to perfection against Kenowa Hills.

The Knights lost five fumbles, three of which led directly to Reeths-Puffer touchdowns.

“We did some nice things on our opening drive, then it was just a rough second quarter,” said Kenowa Hills coach Scott Van Essen. “When you turn the ball over five times you’re not going to win a lot of football games.”

Reeths-Puffer also benefitted from the play of its triple-threat running attack. Halfback Dereko Riley led the team with 89 yards on 15 carries with two touchdowns. Halfback Julian Munday added 82 yards on 16 carries with one touchdown, while bruising fullback Corey Plichta added 25 tough yards and two touchdowns.

“The three of them certainly complement each other well with their different strengths, and that allows us to be more than one thing,” Jewett said. “They’re good kids that have worked hard, and certainly the thanks goes to the guys up front (on the offensive line).”

The first quarter looked promising for the visitors, who took the opening kickoff and used their ground game to advance from their own 24 yard line to the Reeths-Puffer 25. But the long drive ended on downs, and the game went downhill for Kenowa Hills from there.

Reeths-Puffer scored the first points early in the second quarter, driving 80 yards in 10 plays.

The scoring effort was fueled by a 17-yard pass from quarterback Garrett Blanshine to DeAndre Oakes-Owens and an 11-yard run by Munday that left the ball at the Kenowa Hills 30.

Two big Kenowa Hills penalties – a 15 yard personal foul and a pass interference call in the end zone – gave R-P the ball inside the visitor’s 10-yard line.

Riley scored from 7 yards out, and the two-point pass was successful, giving R-P an 8-0 edge.

Riley went back to work about a minute later, fielding a punt at the Rocket 38 and racing all the way to the Kenowa Hills 3-yard line. Plichta plunged in for the score two plays later, and the extra point left the Rockets with a 15-0 lead.

Plichta recovered a fumble at the Kenowa Hills 24 on the Knight’s next possession, and Munday took advantage of the turnover with a 10-yard touchdown run.

The extra point allowed Reeths-Puffer to take a 22-0 halftime lead.                                                                        

The Knights fumbled again midway through the third quarter, this time at their own 36. Reeths-Puffer scored six plays later on a 5-yard touchdown run by Plichta and an extra point kick, extending its lead to 29-0.

Kenowa Hills scored two second-half touchdowns on a 10-yard run Trea Mayhue and a 22-yard pass from quarterback Jordan Marentette to Connor Carruthers.

But the Rockets collected another Knight fumble with about 5 minutes remaining in the game, and Riley capped off the scoring with a 35-yard touchdown run with just over a minute left.

Van Essen said his team was planning to use its running attack to control the game, and credited Reeths-Puffer for making defensive adjustments after the first possession and taking away that strategy.

Josh Buie led the Rocket defense with 19 tackles, while Chris Johnson added nine and DeAngelo Williams had seven.

“They did a nice job,” he said. “They controlled the line of scrimmage in the second quarter. Our style of football, we wanted to run the ball, but it didn’t work out the way we wanted it to. So we got to go back to the drawing board and get after it again.”

Van Essen gave Jewett credit for turning the Reeths-Puffer program around.

“It’s night and day,” he said of the Rockets. “(Jewett’s) done an outstanding job with these kids. They’re getting off the line, they’re physical kids, they’re doing the little things right and obviously it’s paying off for them.”