By Nate Thompson
Because the Bulldogs played Kent City on Saturday afternoon, the coaches were able to travel up north on Friday night to watch LeRoy Pine River down Morley Stanwood 14-7.
It was a valuable scouting trip, because Ravenna will host Pine River this Saturday at 1 p.m. in a Division 6 regional championship game at Citizen’s Field. The winner will face the survivor of the Maple City Glen Lake-Calumet regional in next week’s state semifinal round.
Ravenna Coach David Smith and his staff had a brief opportunity to watch the Bucks, a team they had little previous knowledge of.
Smith said he enjoyed the trek up north, because Pine River’s scenic stadium “was out in the middle of nowhere.”
“That was the first time I’ve seen them in action,” said Smith, whose team is making its first appearance at the regional level since 2009, when it advanced to the Division 7 state semifinals. “They’re more of a spread team. Their quarterback (Mason Powell) is a good athlete and their offense centers around him. He’s a runner and a thrower.”
Pine River, a school located off US 131 halfway between Big Rapids and Cadillac, plays in the Highland Conference. The Bucks were conference champions with a 5-0 record, and their only losses came against non-conference foes Kalkaska (21-18), Grandville Calvin Christian (30-29) and Berrien Springs (49-14).
This is rare territory for Pine River, which has only had six winning seasons in the past 15 years. The Bucks were 4-5 in 2015.
Powell scored both of the Bucks’ touchdowns on the ground in their playoff victory over Morley Stanwood, including the game-winner in the second half. Smith feels the Bulldogs match up well against Pine River, with a defense that has held opponents to under 13 points four times during their current six-game winning streak.
“Really, our defense has been pretty solid all year long,” Smith said, who has led Ravenna to a 9-2 record so far this season. “We gave up some points early in the year, but that was mostly due to the struggles we had on offense that put us in some bad spots.”
Smith said a trio of players provides the heart of the Bulldogs’ defense – end Fred Averill, middle linebacker Zach McCleary and defensive back David Thompson.
When Pine River’s Powell drops back to pass on Saturday, he will have to worry about Averill getting to him before he lets go of the ball. Averill has been applying consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks all season, according to Smith.
“No. 28, he’s been wreaking havoc for us at that end spot,” Smith said.
Offensively, Thompson has put up eye-opening numbers at running back in the Bulldogs’ first two playoff victories. In the pre-district against Lakeview, Thompson ran wild with 323 yards and four touchdowns in a 42-21 victory. Last Saturday against Kent City, he chalked up 208 yards and two touchdowns on just 12 carries in a 20-7 win.
Thompson is running behind a dominant offensive line and a pair of punishing, interchangeable fullbacks in Shane Goebel and Tierstyn McBride. The Bulldogs also have the benefit of being very healthy for this time of year. Only offensive tackle Tanner McFarren is nursing a hip injury, but is expected to play.
Smith, a 1997 Ravenna graduate and a former standout running back and linebacker for the Bulldogs, has seen firsthand how the community rallies around its football team, particularly at playoff time. That support was in full force last weekend against Kent City.
“The community has done a great job supporting these kids,” he said. “There were a lot of people out here on Saturday. It’s great for the kids to see that.
“When they see all those fans, they feed off of that. The more people there are in the stands, the more energy they play with.”