The varsity football team enters the 2021 season motivated by last season’s district semifinal controversy

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A quick glance over to the back wall of the Forest Hills Central High School weight room is all it takes for head coach Tim Rogers and the varsity football team to find their most compelling piece of motivation for this upcoming season.

“I hope they see the picture of our controversial loss to Mona Shores last season as a sign that 100 percent effort matters every day, especially when you’re chasing the two-time defending state champions,” coach Rogers said.

The picture of then-senior Jonah Spates’ knee touching the one-yard line with four seconds left on the clock doesn’t just serve as a constant reminder of how controversial Mona’s win was. It also stresses the fact that the Rangers were only a yard and four seconds away from dethroning the Sailors. 

“If we do things right, I would imagine winning a state championship this year would go through Mona again,” coach Rogers said. “I want that picture as a constant reminder on the wall that we were close but not close enough.”

Now that FHC has learned the true meaning of “close but not close enough,” there is a renewed sense amongst this year’s senior class of the leadership it takes to knock off a team like Mona Shores. Senior Quentin Rudolph, the unlikely onside kick recovery hero against the Sailors last season, has slowly gotten his hands dirty as a leader. Making the most of his backup role in 2020, Quentin is ready to morph into more of a “big brother” in 2021.

“Last year, the seniors who started above me showed me how to be a leader,” Quentin said. “I am ready to become a big brother for all of the younger players on defense this season.”

While players like Quentin are just beginning to step into their new role, other players such as senior Hunter Robinson are picking up where they left off. In 2020, Hunter was regarded as one of the better dual-threat quarterbacks in West Michigan. His mix of speed, balance, and vision during read-option plays was dangerous; his ability to shed off tacklers in the secondary made him more than just a quarterback who could move the chains. Although teams would load up the box out of respect for Robinson, he struggled to air the ball out at times. It wasn’t his vision or football IQ that held him back—it was his unconventional arm mechanics. In order to pinpoint the problem and correct it, Hunter decided to work with a throwing specialist this summer. 

“I feel like I worked on it enough this offseason to the point where it will help our team,” Hunter said, “But, in the end, it’s all about getting the ball to our receivers who will make plays with their legs.”

Hunter’s improvement in the passing game comes at the perfect time. FHC features a highly talented receiving corps made up of seniors Jacob Bonnett, Conner Milton, Ben Scholler, Rhosias Arius, and junior Levi McKenzie. Jacob, a three-year varsity phenom, has an unmatched presence in the slot along with a lethal “big play” gene. On the other hand, Conner is a true possession receiver that always seems to win the“fifty-fifty” ball. And Ben, a gritty piece to the puzzle, can always be counted on to make a big catch. 

“I feel like this receiving group is a talented group who has a lot to prove,” Jacob said. “With it being some of our last years, I think you can expect great things, especially with the end goal being a run in the playoffs.”

An elite air attack can only do so much until defenses start to send the house on a blitz and drop their safeties back into deep zone coverage. Coach Rogers understands how many receiving weapons he has at his disposal; however, he still maintains a blue-collared mentality when it comes to the ground game. 

“We pride ourselves on a great run game and great defense, and that will not change whatsoever,” coach Rogers said. “We’ll try to instill a little more balance, but if you were going to defend us right now, I would load up the box and try to stop Hunter from running the ball.”

Stopping Hunter is one thing, but then having to worry about FHC’s other threats in the run game is another thing. Just as previous Ranger offenses have had the luxury of a quarterback-running back duo similar to Luke Majick and Cam Deines, so does this 2021 squad. Senior Tyler Weaver and sophomore JT Hartman know Hunter won’t always be able to keep the ball on read-options; they recognize that there needs to be a hard-nosed halfback ready to take the handoff when the time comes. 

“Tyler and I have to be ready to go when one of us comes off the field or needs a break,” JT said. “We have a great offensive line that has a lot of seniors on it, so that makes our job a lot easier.”

Whether it’s Saginaw Valley State commit Will Richardson protecting the blindside or seasoned veteran Carter Kelly pulling through the “B” gap, the Ranger offensive line has the potential to push other teams around in the trenches this season. Will and Carter aren’t the only linemen with varsity experience, though, as junior Crandall Quinn and senior Parker Vredenburg return to their starting spots.

“I am confident that our offensive line will be able to dominate once we mesh together,” Will said. “We have too many experienced linemen on our team for us not to dominate, and we have new additions to our line like Owen [Meyer].”

On top of a battle-tested offensive line, FHC walks into the 2021 fall season with a deep defensive line—a unit coach Rogers ranks among the best to ever play for FHC.

“The [defensive] front is going to be as good as we’ve had around here in a long time because of how many guys we can put in the rotation,” coach Rogers said. “We feel very confident that we will be able to move people against their will and disrupt the pocket.”

If there was ever a year to have a six-man deep defensive line, this is the year. In week two, the Ranger defensive front will have the job of stopping Grand Blanc’s three-star running back sensation, Elijah Jackson-Anderson. As an Eastern Michigan commit, Elijah showed off his versatility last season by catching 19 passes for 279 yards and eight touchdowns, along with rushing 41 times for 336 yards and six touchdowns. Later down the road, FHC’s run defense will meet up with another catalyst in the run game, Nathias Grady. As the son of former Michigan running back Kevin Grady, Nathias played a majority of his snaps at fullback in 2020 and was the lead blocker for former East Grand Rapids swiss army knife Nate Milanowski. This season, Nathias looks to stretch his impact on the field farther than lead blocking. Both of these running backs will be a hassle for senior Colten Jenkins and the rest of the defensive line to stop. When All-State linebacker Tyler Weaver takes into consideration his defensive line’s size, however, he believes they will have enough muscle and aggressiveness to cave in on opposing running backs.

“This year’s defense has grown tremendously throughout the summer workouts,” Tyler said. “Our defensive line has sized up to be one of the biggest in the conference, so we’re just looking to get those guys involved in breaking up the run game.”

Between the 40 wins, five straight playoff berths, and the number of FHC alumni playing in college, coach Rogers and his staff have accomplished almost everything they possibly could in the past five years. The next step for the program is hoisting a state championship trophy. But, before the Rangers play for a title at Ford Field, coach Rogers wants to keep his players focused on the present.

“What we do around here never changes; our guys know that when you start looking at games further down the road, that’s when you wind up losing games you shouldn’t lose,” coach Rogers said. “If things work out right and if we stay in the moment, then hopefully we can make the playoffs and make a state championship run.”