RAPID RIVER - In two of the first three 8-man football games between Rapid River and Superior Central, literally one play at a key time separated wins from losses. Rockets coach Steve Ostrenga is anticipating another classic between the two budding rivals Friday as the regional playoffs begin.
"It's going to come down to who makes mistakes and who can overcome the field conditions," Ostrenga said.
Conditions played a key role in Rapid River's 30-27 victory over the Cougars in Eben on Oct. 6. The Rockets were able to seal the victory on a clock draining drive in the fourth quarter when they converted on fourth and short amidst terrible weather.
"In 8-man football, sometimes you get a lucky bounce, or a slip," said Ostrenga. "It was kind of a miserable day the last time we played Superior Central with the elements. I don't know if the weather hurt us or helped."
The two teams likely won't see the rain, sleet and snow that they saw in Eben earlier this month on Friday night, but Ostrenga said the field isn't exactly in ideal condition right now either.
"Right now, it's pretty sloppy out there, we'll see if it dries up," he said.
The two teams favor drastically different styles. Though the Rockets (7-2) have a relatively balanced offense, they're often at their best when quarterback Jake Pearson is pounding out yards on the ground behind his fantastic offensive line, which includes standouts and All-Bridge Alliance Conference selections Hayden Hardwick and Geno Constantino.
Pearson has put up arcarde-like numbers this season, racking up just over 2,400 yards of offense, including 1,611 rushing yards and 810 passing yards with 32 total touchdowns. The Rockets star quarterback however, suffered an ankle injury in his final regular season game against Bellaire. Pearson returned in that game and still had a 32-yard run in the second half. How much the injury will limit him against Superior Central Friday, could determine the outcome of the game.
"Jake is a little up in the air right now. We're going to play him, but how much, time will tell," said Ostrenga. "He's a pretty tough kid and he's been going through the treatments. Obviously it still comes down to the team game. Jake is important but seven guys doing their job will make Jake's job easier. We have to be on the same page."
Superior Central (6-2) on the other hand, favors a pass-heavy offense and they have the athletes to make it work to perfection.
Quarterback Trevor Maki is as prolific and accurate of a passer as they come. He completed 60-percent of his passes this season for 1,416 yards and 18 touchdowns. He can also take off and run when the situation calls for it, rushing for 218 yards and six more scores.
Maki's top receiver Dan Steward is a game-changer. The senior routinely makes catches in double coverage, hauling in 40 balls this season for 820 yards and 10 touchdowns.
"Superior Central is a very good team and they're very well-coached. They present matchup problems across the board," said Ostrenga. "The offense is tough to defend. (Trevor) Maki is a fast, shifty kid who throws the ball very well. Their running back Tyler Kienitz is a very good athlete and those receivers - Nick Maki, Dan Steward and Bryce Richard, those tall receivers present major problems. They burned us for three touchdown passes (on Oct. 6) It was a very close ball game and we had a hard time stopping them."
Defensively, Ostrenga is anticipating more blitz packages.
"I think Superior Central will bring some different things to the defensive table, but they showed some blitzes against Engadine," he said. "They'll move people around and rotate in but at this point you don't do wholesale changes. They'll have some gimmicks in there though."
And the Rockets coaching staff has also been essential this season.
"We appreciate everything that coaches Kiehl and Schram have done. It's been very nice having them here and they've done a great job for us," said Ostrenga.
This will be the second consecutive postseason that the Rockets will host Superior Central. It worked out well the first time around, but Ostrenga isn't sure how much of an advantage home-field is.
"Home Field advantage is nice, but on the other hand, we lost our last two home games," he said. "Sometimes, it presents distractions too. These are two close communities that always have the stands full. It should be a playoff atmosphere. If we can play 48 minutes of hard football, that's all we ask."