Varsity football fails to meet lofty expectations despite spectacular 8-1 regular season


It was supposed to be “the” season.

“We had lofty expectations heading into the season,” senior wideout Jacob Bonnett said. “It’s been a little while since there has been a team here at FHC with as much talent as we had this season, so the school and community were excited to see what we would do.”

Ahead of FHC’s season opener against non-conference foe Jenison, there were rumblings that junior Justin Osterhouse might get the nod at quarterback due to injury concerns with senior Hunter Robinson, who was coming off of a 765-yard, ten-touchdown season as a dual-threat quarterback. Through the air, Hunter threw for 612 yards and four touchdowns. It’s safe to say that he was held in high regard entering this season.

“For a few years now, we have had several productive dual-threat guys [quarterbacks] who all have been able to run our offense very well,” head coach Tim Rogers remarked. “Hunter has earned a spot next to those guys; he’s been a weapon in the run game for the past two years.”

It was certainly not the news coach Rogers wanted to hear about his senior starting quarterback days before the season opener, but he didn’t have a problem handing the keys over to Justin for the time being.

“Justin has been in our program since freshman year as a quarterback, and we have plenty of weapons for him to throw to, so I wasn’t worried about how he would perform with some of that pressure in his grill.”

Versus Jenison, Justin set out to earn the trust of his teammates—teammates that already developed deep-rooted chemistry with Hunter. Knowing that he didn’t have to do everything, Justin let each play unfold naturally; he didn’t try to be the hero. The junior gunslinger didn’t have any concerning rookie mistakes except for a fumble in the fourth quarter. He threw for 87 yards, with his longest pass of the game being a 39-yard touchdown to Conner Milton, who used the defender guarding him as a stepping stool to grab the touchdown pass. On the ground, Jacob carried the load by rushing for a team-high 114 yards and two touchdowns. Alone, it was simply a breakout performance for the senior; however, more importantly, it was exactly the fall-back option Justin needed to help him ease into his new role as starting quarterback.

Justin plows over a Jenison defender for a first down.

“It was nice to be able to throw to weapons like Jacob and Conner because they made the game easier for me,” Justin admitted. “That game helped prove to not only to myself that I was more than capable of being the starting quarterback but to everyone else that was still a little skeptical that they can put their trust in me.”

After earning the trust of his teammates, Justin’s job didn’t get any easier.

“He’s an old-school player,” Grand Blanc head coach Clint Alexander told MLive about his versatile star Elijah Jackson-Anderson. “If it were up to me, we would play primarily on defense; he has ridiculous closing speed when we play him as a Viper.”

Elijah is committed to suit up for Eastern Michigan next fall. (Jake May)

Jackson-Anderson was no doubt a deadly hybrid running back in the Bobcat’s offense, but he did plenty of damage on defense in 2020. While only partially playing on defense, he racked up 10.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. 

Logically, the Grand Blanc contest was one of the most hyped-up matchups at that time. Not only were both teams already being labeled as state-title contenders, but it was also the christening of newly-renovated Ranger Stadium. Next to the Mona Shores pre-district game this season, that Grand Blanc game on September 3 had the publicity to be a capacity counter’s nightmare. 

A picture of FHC’s rabid student section before the Grand Blanc game.

“I was extremely nervous for Week Two because I knew so many people were going to be watching,” Justin said. “ I was sick a little bit, and I didn’t know what a top-five Division One school was going to look like. But after the first play that gained like 25 yards, all that nervous energy was turned into fuel and helped give me the adrenaline to finish the game strong as if it was any other game.”

It wasn’t any other game for Justin, though, as he almost single-handedly tore apart a defense that was led by Grand Valley State commit Cross Dobbs. Out of the three touchdowns that Justin threw, the most important one came in when it mattered most. 

At the one-minute mark of the fourth quarter, Justin sent FHC’s fans into an absolute frenzy thanks to a beautiful 18-yard touchdown pass to Conner Milton. Most people thought they could fill in the blanks for the rest of the game because of the 34-31 lead FHC held onto, yet Grand Blanc’s Hunter Ames and Nasir Carson had a miracle up their sleeves. 

PC: Annie Barker– Conner Milton snags a perfect pass from Justin.

Seventy-six yards away from the endzone, Ames took pressure from FHC’s defense on the chin and lofted a prayer up to Carson. Carson, who didn’t break away from Jacob Bonnett or senior Quentin Rudolph until he was 25 yards away from the line of scrimmage, caught the prayer and dashed away from Jacob and Quentin for a resounding 76-yard touchdown—game over.

PC: Annie Barker– Grand Blanc’s sideline after Nasir Carson’s game-winning touchdown.

Although the secondary struggled in the closing stages of that backyard brawl, the run defense listened to coach Rogers’ advice on gang tackling before the game. 

“We’re going to have to have 11 guys running to the ball because they’re a really good football team,” coach Rogers said after the Jenison game. “We cannot rest, and we have to swarm the football every single play because that kid can pop something.”

As coach Rogers eluded to, Jackson-Anderson was a player known for finding green grass. Senior Tyler Weaver and junior Raymond Cargill took it upon themselves to rally the rest of the defense. They weren’t fazed by the prospect of facing Elijah Jackson-Anderson or his 4.5 speed.

“The defense, including me, watched a ton of film on him [Jackson-Anderson], so we knew what he liked to do and how dangerous he was in the open field.”

On tape, Jackson-Anderson is speed personified. And he got out to a fast start against FHC by leaping into the endzone to put the Bobcats up by seven early. For the most part, though, Tyler won the one-on-one battles with him and tackled him for a loss twice. Tyler’s 12 tackles, along with the defense’s ability to meet Jackson-Anderson in the gaps, were enough to put FHC in the driver’s seat heading into the fourth quarter.

PC: Annie Barker– Jackson-Anderson dives into the endzone to put the Bobcats up 7-0.

“We played extremely well against their running back on the line and in the passing game,” Tyler said. “He was quick, but we were able to get out to those gaps and tackle him.”

At the end of the day, the fight the Rangers put up against Grand Blanc put them on the map—even though they lost. 

People know Grand Blanc’s a good team—they’re Division One,” coach Rogers said. “They have three scholarship kids on their team, and we went toe-to-toe with them, with Justin, without our starting quarterback.”

Throwing for 266 yards and three touchdowns against a Division 1 juggernaut as a previously-unproven quarterback is more than enough to win the starting quarterback job on most West Michigan high school teams. That is unless your name is Justin Osterhouse. 

“Justin would start on most of the other teams in this area, but Hunter got the nod because of the excellent season he had last year,” coach Rogers said.”

So, two weeks after he torched Grand Blanc, Hunter earned back his starting job just in time for the 2-1 Rangers’ second in-conference game against the Lowell Red Arrows. That Friday, Hunter reminded all of West Michigan why he was voted into the 2020 OK White All-Conference Team.

“It felt nice to get back on the field after missing some time, and I was pleased with our team’s performances overall when we played Lowell,” Hunter said.

A combination of sheer determination and powerful run blocking helped Hunter reach 106 yards on the ground at Bob Perry Field and score one rushing touchdown en route to a dominating 30-7 victory over the Red Arrows.

Hunter uses a stiff arm to evade a tackle against Lowell.

“As a group, I thought that our [the offensive line’s] performances against Lowell and Jenison too were our best of the season,” senior Carter Kelly said. “But in the Lowell game, we dominated their defensive line for the whole game.”

As the season progressed, commanding performances from Hunter and his offensive line would become more and more prevalent. As a unit, though, one of the offense’s most productive outings came against Byron Center. At the time, it looked as if an outright OK White title would have to go through Byron. The Rangers might have mentioned a thing or two about having a short memory after last season’s embarrassing 35-14 loss to the Bulldogs. Nevertheless, the juniors on the team last year had to have that score in the back of their head when they took the field for the first time on October 15 at 7:00 PM.

Byron ran for 149 yards against FHC last season.

“Byron gave us a lot of trouble last season and handed us our worst loss,” senior Ben Scholler, who finished with five interceptions this season, said. “What made it even worse was that we had to share the OK White title with them.”

FHC got its revenge on October 15 in the form of a 31-0 statement win behind the play of Ben.

In the statement win, Ben played his best game of the season to the tune of 63 yards for two touchdowns and one pick, as did promising sophomore JT Hartman, who took one to the house and rushed for 110 yards.

Ben scores his first touchdown of the night versus Byron.

“At the start of the season, we marked the Byron game on our calendar as a very pivotal game,” Ben said. “So it was nice to not only beat them just to beat Byron, but the win also moved us one game away from an outright OK White title.”

Considering all of the work players such as Ben put in during the offseason, it’s somewhat mind-boggling that one game could decide whether or not they meet their first goal of the season.”

“Our first goal every year is to win a conference title, and that will never change,” coach Rogers said. 

Early on in the Rangers’ last regular-season game of the year, East Grand Rapids relied on its ground and pound offense to chew the clock out until it turned the ball over. Unfortunately for FHC, EGR’s tactic annoyed FHC’s defense on the first drive of the game—a drive that lasted for a good portion of the first quarter. 

Nathias Grady carves out some room for Andrew Caswell to work with,

To the Rangers’ credit, they didn’t let Nathias Grady and EGR’s methodical offense capitalize on any mistakes. Once Hunter found his groove on his read options, it was over. When it was all said and done, Hunter found the end zone two times to give his offense the spark it needed. To cap off the game, Ben Scholler ran it in from nine yards out to give FHC a 28-0 win. For the first time since 2017, FHC won the whole share of the OK White.

“It was one thing to win the OK White, but it was a whole other thing to beat East on the way to winning it,” senior Luke Gustafson, FHC’s 93 percent extra-point kicker, said. “It’s safe to say we don’t like them, and they don’t like us.”

Next, following the 8-1 Rangers 28-0 blowout victory over the Pioneers, a familiar opponent awaited them in the pre-district round of the playoffs.

During that whole week leading up to Friday’s playoff game against Mona Shores, the scene of Brady Rose and the rest of his eventual state-champion teammates celebrating in the background while Jonah Spates crouched down in pure shock was still vivid in the mind of Quentin Rudolph.

PC: Scott Decamp– Mona Shores celebrates after narrowly defeating FHC 28-25 in 2020.

“The locker room after last season’s game versus Mona was the hardest locker room I have ever had to be in,” Quentin said. “I remember seeing Jonah and other players in shock after the game was called; it was hard to watch.”

The only remedy to help erase the images of that November night was a victory over the two-time defending state champs this time around; it was all the doctor ordered.

Out of the gates, both offenses struggled to move the ball. Near the end of the first quarter, Mona’s offense began to show glimpses of what its offense had the capability to do. Mark Konecny got the Sailors on the board in the second quarter using his legs, which then was followed by a Dahmir Farnum touchdown run. Eventually, at the two-minute mark of the second, Konecny would find an open Jaylen Vinton for a back-breaking fifty-yard touchdown. With a minute left in the second quarter, Mona had a tight grip on the ball game. 

Konecny fires one downfield for Jaylen Vinton.

Right before halftime, however, Hunter connected with Ben on a 52-yard bomb. 

“We looked downfield a little bit earlier in the game for any weaknesses in their [the Sailors’] defense, but that touchdown pass to Ben was the most open anyone got downfield all game,” Hunter explained.

Despite a disappointing first half, FHC was only one stop away from getting back into the game. 

Several times in the second half of action, coach Rogers’ defense held Mona Shores in check. Senior Jack McNamara and the rest of the front seven even put up a few valiant goal-line stands in the red zone. Once the last whistle sounded, though, the Rangers dug too big of a hole to get out of, resulting in a devastating and season-ending 31-7 loss to the same team that sent them home early last year. Regardless of how easy it is to point fingers, a loss is a loss.

Coach Rogers addresses his team after the 31-7 loss to Mona Shores.

“We don’t make excuses,” coach Rogers acknowledged. “We didn’t have enough balance on Friday night. We played pretty well on defense, but we didn’t play very well on offense and did nothing special on special teams. You aren’t going to win against the two-time defending state champs unless you play all three phases of the game at a high level, and we didn’t do that.”

This season, the varsity football team learned how high expectations and success in the regular season have their advantages and disadvantages come postseason time. All of those wins—wins that are nice at the time—progressively increase the buildup for playoffs, and if a team loses, it exacerbates its collapse to an even greater intensity. FHC experienced this phenomenon firsthand in the wake of the loss to Mona Shores.

Nonetheless, in the eyes of coach Rogers, the “beacons” in this year’s 30-6 senior class have embodied dedication that a playoff loss can never wipe away.

The 2021 FHC Varsity Football senior class

”They’ve been beacons of what I want FHC football players to look like; they’ve been committed, they’ve made great sacrifices, they’ve been the best that they can be,” coach Rogers said. “They’ve been upstanding citizens in the community. They just gave it everything they had.”

Editor’s note: Last year, after I started reading Matt Mahoney’s football stories during class, I wanted to try to cover a major sport like varsity football as professionally as he did. So when the opportunity to cover the varsity football team this season came up, I was ecstatic. Now that the season is over, I want to thank the people behind the scenes who helped me publish my recaps every week. To the coaches who uploaded stats onto Hudl, to the people who told me how much they liked my stories, to Mrs. Szczepanek who took thousands and thousands of pictures each and every game, to all of the players who provided me with quotes for all of my recaps, to Thomas Cobb who filmed all of my post-game interviews, to Teague Greer who filled in for me when I couldn’t make it some of the games, and to coach Rogers who was always willing to answer my questions, thank you. It’s been a pleasure, FHC.