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DIVISION 8: Reading Rangers stifle Breckenridge to win first-ever state title, fulfill QB’s guarantee

By: Matthew B. Mowery, November 23, 2018, 2:20 pm

DETROIT — After the Reading Rangers lost in the second round last year, quarterback Alex Price made a public promise that his squad will be spending the day after Thanksgiving with a whole lot more to be thankful for.

“At that time, Nov. 17 last year, our quarterback Alex Price, tweeted out that he guaranteed that we’d be in Ford Field this year,” longtime Reading coach Rick Bailey said after Friday’s Division 8 championship game at Ford Field. “Then he retweeted it this year, right at the end, when we made it, to make sure there was proof. The date was on it, and everything.”

The quarterback and his offensive counterparts not only made the promise stand up, they won handily in their first title-game appearance, beating another first-time finalist, Breckenridge, 39-20, to claim the Division 8 title.

Both teams had hung their hats on a staunch defense, and that showed throughout the first half.

While Reading (14-0) hadn’t faced a defense like that of the Huskies (13-1), Breckenridge hadn’t faced a behemoth offense like that of the Rangers, who’d rolled up more than 5,500 yards on the ground, and racked up 639 points on the season.

“They’re a good, tough, physical football team, and they kind of wore on us more than I thought they would,” Breckenridge coach Kris Robinson said. “The big part of the day for us was we couldn’t stop them defensively. They were just big and physical, and just wore on us. If we could’ve gotten a couple extra stops, we’d have been fine.”

The Rangers still racked up 275 rushing yards — led by 123 from Ethan LoPresto to add to his more than 2,500 yards on the season — and got 69 yards and two scores rom Hunter Midtgard, and another rushing touchdown from Elijah Strine, who recovered a fumble in the end zone for a second score.

“I give all the credit to their defense for stopping us pretty much the whole game, but the plays will come when our running backs get them,” Midtgard said. “Every once in a while, one will break out.”

It was a trio of fourth-down calls early that made big impacts.

The Rangers went for it on fourth-and-1 from their own 32, and came up short, turning it over on downs. Eight plays later, the Huskies went up 6-0 when Carter Staley hit Hunter Collins with a 13-yard touchdown pass.

The next time around, the Rangers chose to punt it away, and pinned the Huskies on their own 1. On the next play, Caleb Miller stripped Staley on a sack in the end zone, and Strine recovered for a touchdown. It was the first time in Ford Field finals history that a player recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown.

“Well, I mean, that’s pretty cool. I think that gained a lot of momentum for us. We were down — they’d scored first – and we’re not used to that. We’re not used to teams scoring much on us at all,” Miller said. “It wasn’t intentional. I just had to work past my guy, past the tackle, and then I hit his arm, and he was carrying it with one hand.”

The Reading coaching staff had tipped off the head coach that Miller might be ready to make a big play.

“Just before that play, our coaches upstairs kept saying ‘They cannot block Caleb.’ I relayed that to him, and the very next play, he made the play,” Bailey said. “I’ll be honest with you, it’s not the x’s and o’s, it’s the Jimmies and Joes. We’ve got a great group over there. They just fly to the football, and refuse to stay blocked, and just swarm to the ball.”

After a Breckenridge punt, the Rangers drove inside the Huskies red zone, then chose to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 5, with Midtgard scoring on a jet sweep.

“Probably shouldn’t have thrown the ball out of our own end zone. I tried to take a shot, and cost us a little bit,” Robinson admitted. “That sequence there, six minutes, changes the whole complexion of the game.”

Reading scored on an 8-yard Price run on the first drive of the second half, taking a 24-6 lead into the fourth quarter, then answered a second Collins touchdown catch with Midtgard’s 52-yard touchdown scamper, and then made it 39-14 with a 9-yard run by Strine.

Staley hit Brennan Waslusky with a 44-yard pass play down to the 1 to set up a 1-yard scoring dive by Collins to close out the scoring with 55 seconds left, but the Huskies were limited to just 21 net rushing yards on the game by a Reading defense that barely gave up 550 yards on the ground all season.

“Offensively, I thought we could move the ball against them, but we just weren’t hitting our targets, and just didn’t have enough blocks to sustain the drive,” Collins said. “Everyone doubted us, saying we couldn’t make it to Ford Field, but here we are now, on Ford Field, playing in the state championship game. I couldn’t be more proud of the team I was on right now.”

Staley was nicked up several times, and came back in to throw for 177 yards.

“We leaned on his toughness all year, and that was evident today. He took some shots back there. He represented himself very well. He just kept getting back up and going back for more,” said Robinson, who took the Huskies from an 0-9 team in 2015 to Ford Field in 2018.

“First of all, I keep trying to forget that, and (people) keep bringing it up. It was a tough year. We’ve got a plan, and we stick to it. When you’ve got Collins and Hunter that were here and experience that 0-9 season, just to have them as leaders, taking charge of stuff, being in the weight room, making sure everybody’s doing what they’re supposed to do. Good athletes coming through, but we’ve also got a process. We’ve learned a lot as a coaching staff. And I’m hoping we can move forward from here. … It was fun, a whirlwind. To be able to go through it with these guys was great. I’m happy for them. Disappointed we couldn’t get a win for them, but when we’re hanging the banner in our gym, it’ll be time to celebrate.”

The Rangers had a similar trajectory over the last three seasons.

“Our story down in Hillsdale County is that this started three years ago. We had a limited number of people coming out for varsity football, just due to our size, and lack of boys in our classes. I think we had five seniors and six juniors. So we brought up three freshmen and seven sophomores that year to play football with 21. But it also allowed us to keep some of our young men down at the junior varsity level, and the 10 that came up they got to play. We pretty much played that year with a junior varsity team at the varsity level, went 3-6, but we were competitive in every game,” Bailey said. “They just decided, back then, that they were going to make it happen.”