2021 Forest Hills Central Varsity Football: the king of the hill in the OK White


FHC captured its second outright OK White title since 2017 on Friday night.

This year’s senior class wasn’t in high school the last time that the varsity football team won an outright OK White title in 2017. 

“There are a lot of comparisons [between this year’s team and the 2017 team],” head coach Tim Rogers, who served as the current senior class’s eighth-grade gym teacher in 2017, said. “In 2017, we were very talented in the box as well as on the perimeter. We also had a good running quarterback, and we played good defense. This season, we exhibit those same traits; they are very, very similar teams.”

On October 13, 2017, when Cedar Springs was still a powerhouse in the OK White Conference, the varsity football team captured its most recent outright OK White title in a 35-20 comeback win over the Red Hawks. Friday’s 28-0 contest against East Grand Rapids wasn’t as closely contested as the Cedar Springs game was four years ago; however, the victory still completed a four-year, outright championship cycle for FHC.

“It’s [a conference championship] the first thing we shoot for every year,” coach Rogers said. “People talk about playoffs and state championships, but at the end of the day, what you have to do is win your conference. It’s very satisfying that we reached the first major goal for ourselves this year.”

To reach that “major goal,” FHC entered Friday’s game with the mindset that it could not fall into a trap against a 3-6 East team—a team that had nothing to lose. With an outright OK White title on the line, though, it wasn’t difficult for the Rangers to find enough motivation to get them over the finish line. As if the 7-1 Rangers didn’t need any more motivation, they were also gearing up to play one of FHC’s most bitter rivals. 

“Our rivalry against East is one of our biggest and gets chippy every year; the rivalry is even bigger with the parents and people who have been here to see how dominant they once were,” senior defensive end Colten Jenkins said.

Senior kicker Luke Gustafson’s opening game kickoff on Friday put pen to paper and started a new page for the rivalry. 

FHC’s kickoff unit prepares for the opening kickoff.

For most of the season, the Pioneers have relied on their ground game to move the chains because of inconsistent quarterback play. With that in mind, it wasn’t surprising that they loaded up their tight ends on the offensive line early on in the game. Running behind more bodies, EGR’s running back Andrew Caswell was able to break out for a 12-yard gain on the third play of the game. Two plays into their drive, the Pioneers sat on their own 31. 

“We were expecting a lot of runs up the middle, and some runs from their wildcat quarterback, Nathias Grady,” junior linebacker Raymond Cargill said. “We planned to stop it by bringing a safety into the box and bringing the pressure with our defensive line.”

Aside from that 12-yard gain by Caswell, FHC held him and Grady in check on the first drive. As a result of excellent run defense, FHC forced EGR to punt from its own 38.

Usually, EGR uses an Australian football punting strategy in which its punter, junior Nick Collins, takes the snap and runs towards the sidelines. At the last second, Collins would normally boot the ball away in the direction of the punt returner. To the surprise of many, though, junior Jack Higgins faked the punt and streaked out for what seemed like a game-defining 23-yard scamper. It didn’t take long for Central to realize how reckless EGR’s play-caller was willing to be. 

EGR’s Jack Higgins takes off on a fake punt.

After that fake punt, EGR’s offense was rolling behind the legs of Nathias Grady, David Bernecker, and Andrew Caswell. The Pioneers’ offense was plowing down the field, threatening to punch the ball in for the first touchdown of the game. 

By the time the clock hit 1:46 in the first quarter, David Bernecker and EGR still had possession of the ball, meaning that they had exhausted the defense from 5901 Hall Street for nearly the entire first quarter. In order to get off the field, FHC desperately needed to force a field goal. Senior defensive end and left guard Carter Kelly would answer the call on a third down and six from FHC’s own six-yard line, as he wrapped up David Bernecker before Bernecker could even cross the line of scrimmage. 

Senior Carter Kelly swallows up David Bernecker to force a fourth down.

“They [the Pioneers] were definitely driving down the field on that first drive, so our defense really needed a break on the sidelines,” Carter said. “I knew I needed to make a play on the ball when he [Bernecker] started to think about taking it upfield.”

Carter’s tackle could have possibly saved a touchdown, but the Pioneers still had an opportunity to get some points on the board if they could make a 16-yard field goal.

The wind wasn’t a factor in the kicking game on Friday, and it wasn’t too wet or slippery to get off a solid kick, so there weren’t any immediate red flags to worry about for EGR’s kicker Nick Collins. Up until Collins made contact with the ball, everything looked fine; the snap was perfect, and the holder didn’t have any trouble securing the ball. Nevertheless, the ball hooked right and ricocheted off the right goal post. All of East’s hard work to get down to the red zone was put to waste.

FHC contests EGR’s field goal attempt.

On the ensuing drive, FHC had to start on its 20-yard line. Most of that drive was filled with incomplete passes or short gains; FHC wasn’t able to get in a rhythm. That lack of offensive production led FHC to punt the rock back to the gold and blue. 

Again, the Rangers’ defensive unit would make a big stop when it counted most. 

Without a reliable kicking game, EGR decided to go for fourth down on the following drive. Bernecker’s pass was bobbled and dropped by one of his receivers, handing the possession arrow back to the Rangers.

Just like that, senior Hunter Robinson and the offense had a second chance to drive down the field. 

Taking matters into his own hands, Hunter faked the jet sweep handoff to senior Jacob Bonnett and pranced up the gut of the defense for a 23-yard gain on second down and one. That explosion set FHC up with prime real estate on EGR’s 35-yard line. 

Because that fake jet sweep worked its magic two plays prior to the Rangers’ second down and six on the 31, offensive coordinator Mike Ebbert elected to test the Pioneers’ defense once more. Once more, Hunter would scurry for another sizeable gain—that time in the form of 18 yards.

Hunter finds some space to work with and moves the chains.

“I thought our offensive line and the run game helped us get out to a quick start on that drive, and after having trouble getting going on the first drive, we needed those big gains of yards from Hunter,” senior guard Parker Vredenburg said.

All of Hunter’s effort paid off three plays later, as he marched in for his first of two touchdowns in the second quarter to give his team its first lead of the night. Senior Luke Gustafson’s extra point increased FHC’s lead to seven with six minutes left in the second quarter.

“They [the Pioneers] moved the ball early on us, and we did a couple of things on special teams to get off the field,” coach Rogers said. “I liked how we got into a good rhythm on the ground with Hunter too.”

Hunter rushes for his second touchdown of the night.

Those two rushing touchdowns from Hunter, who rushed for 123 total yards on the night, provided FHC with a 14-0 lead heading into halftime.

The story of the second half was FHC’s staunch defense and senior Conner Milton’s ability to snag fifty-fifty balls.

Between Conner’s 43-yard resounding touchdown grab to put FHC up 21-0 and senior Ben Scholler’s nine-yard touchdown run in the fourth, FHC handily defeated East Grand Rapids to win its first outright OK White crown since 2017.

“An outright conference title means everything to us,” Ben said. “We had a goal all year of winning the conference, and now we have a lot of confidence going into the playoffs.”

Next week, FHC enters the treacherous yet exciting waters of the postseason. The OK White champs will face a very familiar opponent: the Mona Shores Sailors. Last season, as most FHC fans remember, the eventual state champions, Mona Shores, squeaked past FHC in a nail-biting 28-25 thriller for the ages.

A picture from last year’s district final in which FHC gave Mona Shores a scare of a lifetime.

Although the past is the past, there is no doubt that the controversy from last year will sneak its way into Ranger Stadium next Friday when the two Division 2 juggernauts clash in a first-round playoff bout. Senior safety Quentin Rudolph, the player who recovered the onside kick last season to give FHC life against Mona, fully understands that each game from now on could be the final crusade for him and his fellow seniors.

“You take everything day by day as it approaches you,” Quentin said. “We have a really rough division, but we trust our coaches’ preparation and take the mindset of survive and advance. The atmosphere in the locker room is much different; the seniors are heading into what could be their last week ever playing football, so everyone understands they can’t take any snaps off.”