Story by Jim Horvath
Photos by Ryan Kaczmarski
Video by Rob Trautman
In Friday night's final Battle for the Bridge, both Rocky River and host Lakewood came into the game needing a win.
Both teams were coming off back-to-back West Shore Conference losses, and both were looking at this neighborhood rivalry game to point them back in the right direction. As the wind and rain picked up, it was obvious the game would transform into a defensive struggle.
Ironically, that trend wound up favoring the Pirates.
Rocky River, which had surrendered a total of 138 points in their previous two games, was able to hold Lakewood's running attack in check just enough to come away with a 14-12 win at First Federal Lakewood Stadium. The win raised the Pirates' record to 4-2 on the season and gave them final bragging rights in the series with the Rangers.
"Our defense really stood up tonight," said Rocky River head coach Rick Adams," whose team raised its WSC record to 1-2.
"We struggled offensively, but our defense did a great job keeping us in the game until we were able to get some things on track," Adams said. "We just can't afford to make those mistakes when we're driving down toward the end zone.
"Three times we were going in, and we have penalties that take away potential touchdowns. We've got to do a better job mentally on that," he said.
Rocky River had a 14-6 halftime lead, but the Pirate lead could have been bigger. A 26-yard run by senior quarterback Matt Lowry would of had his team at the Ranger 2-yard line with 36 seconds left int he half. But a holding call nullified the play and ended the threat.
In the second half, two holding calls on Rocky River's second possession of the half ended another drive and resulted in a 23-yard field goal attempt that went wide left. And early in the fourth quarter, an illegal shift penalty at the Lakewood 6-yard line threw a wrench in another Pirate scoring opportunity.
The visitors still had a chance to make something of the drive, but the Ranger defense stopped Lowry short on fourth down and one at the 5-yard line. That's when things got interesting.
Both teams went three and out on their next series. But with 5:12 left in the game, Lakewood took over on its own 3-yard line. On the first play from scrimmage, the ball was handed off to senior running back Michael Johnston.
Johnston fought through heavy traffic at the line, broke several tackles and began to break away. He turned on the jets and eluded the final two Pirate defenders and sped into the north end zone for a 97-yard touchdown run.
"When I was talking to our coaches at halftime, I told them 'this is a Lakewood Rangers game.' At 14-6, it wasn't a Rocky River game," said Lakewood head coach Mike Ribar as he looked back on the play.
"We had to keep pounding at it, and sooner or later one of our guys is going to break a long run. And that's what happened, and that was a great run by Michael," Ribar said. "But that's us. That's who we've been.
"We break a play here or there and get a score," he said.
But on the conversion try, a roll out play resulted in an incomplete pass. On the Rangers' first touchdown of the game, a penalty on the conversion kick pushed the Rangers back and resulted in the kick going wide.
Two missed conversions. A 2-point loss for the Rangers.
"You hate to put anything on one play, because one play doesn't make a game," Ribar said. "But that's the second game that we missed an extra point early in the game. It changed the parameters of what we wanted to do later.
"If you look at our past games, we've had drives where we had chances to score again. But we shoot ourselves in the foot with a fumble or a penalty. Tonight we had one turnover and a couple of penalties the obviously hurt us," he said.
With 4:50 left in the game, the Rangers never got the ball back. Rocky River went on a eight play drive, converting a pair of fourth and one opportunities to seal the deal.
"Our defense really stepped up this week," Adams said. "I'm really proud of them, and I know our coaches are proud of them. We really stressed all week the importance of defense and getting back on track, to play the way we can. We did that.
"And hey, a win's a win. We're used to scoring a ton of points, but in the end it goes in the books as a W," Adams said. "It's been a few years since we've won one like this. It just shows that our kids have dealt with a lot of adversity, and that we're more than just an offensive team.
"It didn't matter how we got it, we needed a win. These kids 20 years from now, when they're talking about this game, are going to talk about how this was a win," he said.
The Pirate defense held Johnston to 11 net yards on his first 13 carries before his 14th try resulted in the 97-yarder. Junior Quentin Hill added 25 yards in six carries as the Rangers found the going tough the entire game.
"We know everybody's bringing nine in the box against us," Ribar said. "We get it, and we know it's coming.
"But we're playing a style of football we said we were going to play from day one. We haven't lied to anybody. We said we were going to play this thing close to the vest, and that we were going to run it. This is who we are. We're a team that's going to be in every game. Now, we have to figure out how we're going to win these games.
"We haven't done that yet, but we're going to," Ribar continued. "Those are the steps we have to take. Tonight, we thought the weather was in our favor as far as holding their offense down a bit. I really think we did our job to the best of our ability to try and contain Lowry. You can't really, he's a heck of an athlete.
"We bent, but we didn't break, and that gave us a chance to win," he said.
Lowry ran the ball 26 times for 235 yards and completed just seven of 18 passes for 78 yards and a touchdown. That came on a 4-yarder to Pat Connors in the back of the end zone with 9:06 left in the first half. Senior Travis Smith had the Pirates' first score, a 5-yard touchdown run in the first quarter after a botched Ranger punt.
Johnston capped off a 55-yard Ranger drive late in the first quarter with a 3-yard touchdown run. But the ensuing penalty and missed point after kept the visitors in the lead.
Still, Ribar felt his team was continuing to make strides, although this particular loss was a tough pill to swallow.
"We always talk about how there's always five plays you can go back and look at," Ribar said. "There always seems to be one of those plays that would have changed things the other way. If you can say that, that means you're in the game. That means you played, and you were playing hard.
"That's what I told the boys after the game. I'm proud of them. I'm honestly sick to my stomach for them, I really am. I've been doing this a long time, between playing and coaching. I'm a competitive guy. But the part that's bothering me is that these guys are working so hard and not getting the reward at the end.
"People will say 'you guys are doing great, you're making changes, the kids are getting better.' We're so close, and that's what makes it worse. If you lose a game by 10, but you played hard, it's a little easier to take. These are the games that just rot in your gut.
"Back to the drawing board tomorrow," he said.
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Click on the cameras below to view Ryan's photos and Rob's video highlights from this game: