RAPID RIVER - At 2 p.m. this Saturday, the Bellaire Eagles (8-3) will return to play the Rapid River Rockets (9-2) for the second time this season.
The main difference is, the winner of this game will punch their ticket to the state finals.
In their first meeting, the Eagles took full advantage of Jake Pearson's ankle injury as they posted a 28-16 victory over the Rockets.
Last week, Pearson put up 251 yards on 35 carries in the Rockets' win over Cedarville. Clearly, his ankle is fine, and his team is determined that their history with Bellaire will not repeat itself. The Rockets are aiming for a return trip to the state championship game at the Superior Dome after reaching the finals last year.
Rockets coach Steve Ostrenga said that if his team can stay focused on all the fundamentals and the little things that got them to this point, they will come out on top.
"If they stay together and play the way they are capable of, I know that they can be a pretty special group," he said.
Ostrenga stated that at Tuesday night's practice, he talked to his team about the senior players, and how their time is winding down. Many of the departing players have seen their fair share of adversity through injuries over the years, but their devotion to the team never wavered.
"Guys like Geno Constantino; after getting hurt, he had to put a smile on his face, and he did," he said. "He did everything he could to play last year. Riley Pajnich has done a lot of things for us that go unnoticed, and he works so hard in practice. Chris Morgan, catching that pass against Superior Central was big.
"Eli Orth has dealt with injuries almost since he came in, but he's always determined to play. It's great to see them, and really all of these seniors play. They've done some special things."
Coach Ostrenga added that on paper, the Rockets and the Eagles are very evenly matched, which means the game will come down to whoever makes the fewest mistakes.
"(In the first game) We only had one turnover, but it was a huge turnover," he said. "We can take nothing away from them. As (assistant coach) Tyler Kuehl said, 'this game comes down to inches. Whoever has the most penalties, or turnovers, or better special teams. The little things.'
"All those cliches, that's why they became cliches - because they are so true."
Bellaire has been dominating their competition in the playoffs, and the play of sophomore running back Chase Small has been a big contributing factor. Small has three touchdowns in each of the Eagles' postseason games so far, and he put up a jaw-dropping 198 yards against Kingston. But even with their momentum coming into this game, Bellaire coach Ron Bindi expects nothing less than a battle against Rapid River.
"We've played them twice (over the last two years), and every time it's been a hard hitting type of game," he said. "They are good athletes, and they have great ability to move the ball and run with (Pearson). Last time, we took advantage of their quarterback being banged up. We've just got to play defense, that's how I look at it."
According to Bindi, it would mean absolutely everything to his team if they could advance to the state finals, especially after bouncing back from an 0-2 start the way they did this season.
"It was a goal, and I told them way back last year that if they believed in what we were doing and wanted to work at it, that we should be able to get there," he said.