The odds were stacked against coach Ken James’ Northwood squad as it entered the Division VI playoffs on Friday.
Not only were the Rangers 1-8 all-time in eight playoff appearances, but they were the No. 8 seed team in Region 20 and had to travel to top-seeded and eighth-ranked Defiance Tinora in the opening round. A year ago, in 96 first-round games, only two No. 8 seeds upended a No. 1 seed.
But that’s why they play the game.
“Our guys are ready to play,” James said Wednesday night. “We have a smaller margin for error than we did against some other teams. We know we’re the underdog going in, but we feel good about our chances.”
|Northwood sophomore Mike Vallejo tackles an opposing ball carrier. (Press
file photo by Don Thompson/picasweb.google.com)
Northwood (8-2) took an eight-game winning streak into the playoffs following season-opening losses to Ayersville (42-34) and Lake (56-20), which made the playoffs in Division IV. Ayersville lost to Green Meadows Conference rival Tinora during the regular season.
Even though the Rangers have been a regular playoff participant, it has been 10 years since they won their only playoff game, in 2003 against Edgerton. They were close last year, losing 20-19 to visiting Patrick Henry.
James said breaking the playoff victory drought would “be a good shot in the arm for our program.”
“Each year and every team is a different entity,” he said. “We’ve been struggling in the playoffs lately. Most of these kids were in elementary school when we last won a playoff game. We’ve been in a situation where we’ve been competitive. We’ve gotten some tough draws. We’re in a smaller league and we end up (being) a lower seed, but we think we’re pretty close. We’re trying to do everything we can to be competitive.”
Northwood had to beat Cardinal Stritch last Friday and have Patrick Henry lose to Wauseon in order to secure a berth in the postseason. The Rangers trounced Stritch 69-7, and Wauseon defeated Patrick Henry.
“The irony was that Patrick Henry knocked us out three of the last four years,” James said, “and if they would won (last week) they would have knocked us out again without playing us. They would have jumped us (for the No. 8 seed) if they would have won that game.”
The Rangers face a Tinora squad, which features a ball-control wing-T offense, that is making its ninth appearance in the playoffs. The Rams’ last appearance was in 2010, and they are 4-8 all-time in the postseason
Northwood also likes to control the ball on the ground. The Rangers rushed for 3,136 yards and passed for 453 this season, while averaging 40.8 points per game.
Sophomore quarterback Mike Vallejo completed 34 of 72 passes for 593 yards and five touchdowns with five interceptions during the regular season. He also rushed for 593 yards and five touchdowns.
“Any sophomore quarterback is going to find out that the game happens pretty rapidly,” James said. “The game started to slow down for him as the year went on. He became more patient. When we got into league play, he did a really good job of managing the offense and protecting the football. When he had to get it done, he got it done.”
Junior halfback Dominik Bermejo led the team in rushing, with 1,380 yards and 20 touchdowns on 140 carries. He also started at strong safety and had three interceptions to go with a team-high 93 tackles.
“He gets to the ball fast,” James said. “He does a little bit of everything for us. He was our leading rusher and leading tackler and was second in interceptions. He also punted for us and was a great returner. He had some scores on punts and kickoffs. In terms of contributions, he had about as good a year as a high school kid could have.”
The Rangers hope Bermejo’s contributions continue at least one more week.
“We’re playing a lot of younger kids,” James said. “For us, (a win) would give us a good shot of making the next step forward to being a good playoff team, which is one of our goals. We’re trying to get faster and stronger and trying to work harder and smarter to beat these teams. We’re not satisfied just getting in. We want to be competitive when we get in.”