By Steve Gunn
They both play very tough schedules, particularly in the cut-throat West Michigan Conference.
The two teams will clash Friday night at North Muskegon at 7 p.m., with the winner still on track to fight for a postseason playoff berth, and the loser in a much more difficult position.
Ravenna opened the season with an easy non-league victory over Kent City (62-7), but then the schedule became challenging.
The Bulldogs lost a 70-48 conference shootout to a resurgent Montague team, which is 3-0 after only winning two games last season.
Then last week Ravenna faced Detroit Loyola, the defending Division 7 state champion, and dropped a 42-7 decision. There was no shame in the loss, considering West Michigan Conference champion Oakridge was soundly beaten by Loyola the week before.
Loyola was on the schedule as a replacement for Hart, a conference school that dropped football this year. Now, following the loss, the Bulldogs are 1-2 and looking up.
“No disrespect to Hart, but it’s a lot different playing Hart than Detroit Loyola,” said Ravenna Coach David Smith. “They are going to win another state title in Division 7.
“But we’re staying the course. We’re not going to panic.”
If they lose to North Muskegon, the Bulldogs would have to win their last five games to get six wins and guarantee a playoff berth. Three of those five games are against powerful teams – Oakridge, Whitehall and Muskegon Catholic.
Ravenna can play with any of those teams, but the games could go either way.
Smith noted that the Bulldogs have been missing several key players due to injuries, including receivers/defensive backs Dakota Hudson and Cameron Passenier, linebackers/offensive linemen Tanner McFarren and David Denning and fullback/linebacker Seth Morgan.
McFarren and Denning have returned to the lineup, but the others are still out.
“We’ve had a lot of positions we’ve been trying to fill,” Smith said. “We’ve been going from having experienced players to throwing in some young guys. But we’ll be fine.
“We’re big picture here. We’re not going to freak out.”
Ravenna still has plenty of weapons, starting with senior running back David Thompson, who has a pair of 200-plus yard rushing games and seven touchdowns to his credit this season.
North Muskegon is in a similar situation.
The Norse started the season with an impressive victory over non-league rival Holton (35-6), but then had to face a firing squad of three great conference opponents in a row – Whitehall, Oakridge and now Ravenna.
The Whitehall (54-13) and Oakridge (53-27) games both turned out to be tough losses, and now the Norse are also 1-2.
Like Ravenna, a loss this Friday would mean the Norse would have to win their last five games to get to the magical six wins.
Their last five games are against Mason County Central, Montague, Shelby, Manton and Hesperia. Montague and Hesperia are unbeaten so far while Mason County Central is 2-1.
“We knew going in that the schedule was going to be tough the first few weeks,” said Norse Coach Mike Belmonte. “We tell the kids to just keep working hard and it’s going to pay off, and they buy into it. They keep responding and putting in the work.”
After finishing 5-4 for three straight seasons and barely missing the playoffs each time, Belmonte went into the season very conscious of getting that sixth win.
But at this point he said it’s a matter of taking the season game-by-game and improving.
“We’re focusing on getting better each week, and (worrying about the playoffs) is not as important as getting ready for Ravenna.,” Belmonte said.
The Norse also have some talented players at their disposal, including running back Vernonell Smith, who gained 127 yards and scored a touchdown against Holton, then gained 225 yards and scored three times against Oakridge.
Quarterback Erick Bleakley has also been strong for North Muskegon, completing 24 of 47 passes for 323 yards and three touchdowns. He also has three rushing touchdowns to his credit.