Varsity football secures third District final appearance in four years with 34-14 win over Mattawan

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Deep into the third quarter in Friday’s matchup with the Mattawan Wildcats, the varsity football team was being held to no more than a 13 point lead, keeping the Wildcats well within reach. However, with 2:36 remaining in the third quarter, that all changed.

“The strong safety was on the outside shade of me, so I decided I was going to take an inside release,” junior Evan Van Artsen said. “After I got to seven yards, I turned straight towards the front pylon and ran. Jimmy passed me the perfect ball, and I just sprinted as fast as I could toward the end zone.”

After the touchdown from Evan, things only got worse for Mattawan; Mattawan threw an interception and was constantly being stopped by the FHC defense, and the Rangers began to hold a tight grip on the game.

While the scoreboard didn’t necessarily show dominance from FHC until late in the game—for the most part—this was the case from the beginning. 

On the Wildcats’ first offensive play of the game, junior Carson Mocherman made his presence known, knocking down the Mattawan wide receiver for no gain on the screen play. Showing the ability to get to the quarterback quickly and forcing errors, the FHC defense forced a punt as the Wildcats approached half-field. Mattawan’s Jalen Jones threw an incomplete pass downfield on 3rd and 10 in large part due to the exceptional coverage from the FHC secondary that was displayed all game.

Taking over from their own 29, senior Jimmy Scholler and the Ranger offense found success early. On the first play of the drive, Jimmy found senior Jackson Clay through the air for the 19 yard gain, putting FHC near midfield. After a couple of minutes of short gains and first downs on the ground, Jimmy found Jackson yet again for a first down. This came on 3rd down, an element of the game that the Rangers took control of early and never looked back from. Going 8 of 13 on third downs compared to Mattawan’s 3 of 9 was an important aspect of the game, and it clearly showed in the latter ends of the contest.

Less than 30 seconds later, Jimmy continued the early theme of him running up the gut for short gains, with this run resulting in a 1-yard score. After the extra point was successfully sent through the uprights by senior Will Gustafson, the Rangers led Mattawan 7-0 with 4:10 remaining in the first quarter.

Following a touchdown from the opposition, Mattawan looked like it had found its groove on offense. On two high-pressure conversion attempts in a row, the Wildcats secured first downs on 3rd and 2 and 4th and 2 to open up the second quarter. Just after the four-yard gain in a do-or-die situation, Carson Mocherman forced a fumble from the Mattawan running back. Sophomore Jacob Bonnett recovered the bouncing ball on the ground and returned it 15 yards to the 50; the Ranger offense would take over with a fresh possession a minute inside of the second quarter.

Jimmy had a couple of short runs to start the drive, and this put the FHC offense in a 3rd and 1 situation from the Mattawan 41-yard line. After stepping back into the pocket on third down, Jimmy found a hole straight down the middle. The senior quarterback burst into open space, falling just short of the touchdown as a Wildcat defender brought him down at the 1-yard line. Throughout the day, he ran for a total of 114 yards and 3 touchdowns. 

On the next play, Jimmy finished the business, leaping over the pile for his—and his team’s—second score of the day. Although the extra point was blocked, the Rangers now held a 13-0 advantage with 9:12 still to go in the second quarter.

“We talked about this a week ago. We have to have balance in order to make a run in the playoffs, and it was nice to see our offense get things started again,” said head coach Tim Rogers when asked about the increased offensive production. “We fixed some things from the previous week, and obviously some things are working out. Some players are stepping up, and that’s what we need to make a run in the playoffs.”

Had Mattawan’s next offensive possession turned out a bit differently, this game could have been a whole different story. With a score here and a defensive stop on the horizon, the Wildcats had an opportunity to tie things up or even take the lead. It looked like this would be the case on first down when Wildcat quarterback Jalen Jones scrambled, escaped pressure, and found the hands of a Mattawan receiver with a deep ball for an 80-yard score. Fortunately for FHC, the touchdown was called back for a penalty in the backfield during the scramble. With 8:55 left in the second quarter, a score there for the Wildcats would have put the pressure on both sides of the ball for FHC. 

After advancing the ball 20 yards to their own 35-yard line, the Wildcats were put into a tough 3rd and 10 situation. Jones threw up yet another fade pass down the sideline for a Mattawan receiver to chase, but this time the ball was intercepted by Jacob. Yet again, another game-changing play was called back, this time for a pass interference call on the sophomore cornerback. 

Despite the fresh set of downs further down the field, the Wildcat offense continued to struggle in obtaining first downs. On a second consecutive 3rd and long, the screen pass was stopped for just a two-yard gain. The Wildcats were forced to punt, but so too were the Rangers. After Jacob dropped the ball to move the chains, Mattawan took over possession on its own 23-yard line with 3:07 to play in the first half.

Inside their own half with just under a minute to go, the Wildcats faced a 3rd and 9. The FHC defensive line very nearly got to Jones for the sack, but the talented signal caller squeaked out of pressure once again before throwing for the first down. Jones managed to escape near-sacks many times throughout the night, and Rogers fully credits the man under center for saving possessions.

“[Jones] is good, that’s what the problem for us was,” Rogers said. “He is very elusive, and it’s hard to make plays in space on that kid. You have three 200 pound linemen who are trying to catch that kid, and he makes it really difficult.” 

Just after that, you could see what a drive-saving play can do for a team. With under 25 ticks left on the clock in the first half, Jones threw up another long-distance bomb to a Wildcat receiver, this time for a 45-yard touchdown. Although, the two-point conversion was unsuccessful, with sophomore Tyler Weaver beating the Mattawan receiver to the edge and stopping him well short. With that touchdown, the Rangers returned to the locker room with a 13-6 advantage at the break. 

An advantage of the Mattawan touchdown happening when it did was that it gave the Rangers an opportunity to regroup before the next possession. Besides the one punt, the FHC offense hadn’t been stopped, and the defense as handling business, excluding a couple of breakdowns. To put it simply, the Rangers were dominating much more so than the scoreboard showed; it was just a matter of time until the points started showing up.

With the Rangers receiving the second-half kickoff, the offense drove down deep into Mattawan territory. On one of only ten FHC passing plays throughout the game, Jimmy threw a pass to junior Jonah Spates on the right edge for him to go up and grab. As the ball made its way towards Jonah’s hands, the Mattawan cornerback jumped up for the 50/50 play and intercepted it, giving the Wildcats possession at their own 10-yard line with just under five minutes to go in the third quarter. The possession didn’t lead to much, however, and the Wildcats punted from near their own endzone. 

Soon after, the Ranger passing game came to life. Evan beat his man with a burst of acceleration and had nothing but green grass ahead of him, and all Jimmy had to do was find Evan’s hands. The gunslinger did exactly that, reaching Evan over the top for the 44-yard touchdown. 

“It felt amazing scoring that touchdown,” Evan said. “It truly is exhilarating having the whole crowd cheer for you, and it made it so much better that it happened in such an important game and time.”

Right after the touchdown from Evan, senior Hayden Sarjeant intercepted Jones with a leaping catch. With a 20-6 lead and possession of the football, the Rangers had the opportunity to effectively put the game away with just over two minutes remaining in the third. FHC failed to do so and were forced to punt, with the Wildcats taking over again on their own 17 after stellar special teams coverage. 

On the next possession for Mattawan, the Ranger defense demonstrated what it’s shown throughout the majority of the season. When the crucial time comes, the defense shows up and shuts its opponents down. The case was no different, with FHC forcing a 4th and 1 situation inside the Mattawan half. The defensive line that has been ever-so-impressive this year of seniors Brandon Weiskopf and Wyatt Engler, sophomores Carter Kelly and Will Richardson, and junior Mason Wiltz pulled off the stop, giving FHC possession with 10:18 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Jimmy continued to put his running expertise on display, running for a 12-yard touchdown less than three minutes later and giving FHC a 27-6 advantage. 

Stuck far in its own half, Mattawan passed play-after-play as panic set in. That’s when senior Bobby Lynch lept for the interception near the line of scrimmage, perfectly cutting off the route the Wildcat receiver was making and creating a third turnover of the game. Despite the importance of Friday’s game, Rogers was able to rotate players in who haven’t had the opportunity to get the playing time they deserve as the Rangers pulled away.

“It’s great to reward those older guys that have been around here for four years. It never felt like they got enough time, and we had a chance to get them in; Bobby Lynch is a perfect example of that,” Rogers said. “At the same time, we got some young guys some reps too. As you’re trying to build a program like we are, playoff football is contagious, and it’s great to get some kids that don’t get a chance in the game. It just heightens their love for football.”

Thanks to Bobby’s play, FHC started at the Mattawan 3-yard line. After a couple of short runs, Carson Mocherman finally broke the ice with a 1-yard score. The rest of the game consisted of a Mattawan touchdown and running down the clock, and the final score of the contest was 34-14. 

Throughout the entirety of the game, the Rangers showed fight whenever things could possibly go Mattawan’s way.

“I thought we were pretty resilient tonight. We did some things silly on offense and defense, but we bounced back, and that’s kind of how playoffs go,” Rogers said. “You’re going to see good teams from here on out, and you’re not going to have a person have a perfect game. When we made mistakes, we fixed them, and then we didn’t do them again. I’m very proud of my kids.”

With this win, the Rangers are now 8-2 on the season, already much improved from last year’s 5-5 final record. The team now clinches its third berth in a District final in four years, with the other two appearances resulting in District championships. 

Friday’s opponent will be the Portage Northern Huskies, a program that FHC is unfamiliar with. The two teams have only played each other once, with the Rangers defeating the Huskies 33-17 all the way back in 1984. Portage Northern has a very talented roster, but the keys to success will just be the Rangers executing their own stuff.

“We just need to keep doing the little things well,” Jimmy said. “We need to beat them over the top and keep pounding the ball down the middle, just like we’ve been doing throughout the season.”