Rangers coach Ken James, who took over the Northwood program in 1986, has a 16-5 all-time record against the Green Bears.
The veteran coach, however, isn’t counting on his team’s past history against Ottawa Hills to have any bearing on its Oct. 10 meeting on the Bears’ turf.
Last season, Northwood struggled en route to a 28-21 win over Ottawa Hills. It was the Rangers’ closest conference game of the year on their way to the TAAC title.
“We expect the same thing this year,” said James, whose team was 5-1 and 2-0 in the TAAC heading into its Oct. 3 game at winless Danbury. “They had an excellent game plan and we didn’t play well offensively.
“We were scoring at a pretty good clip and they shut us down. We missed some blocks and didn’t play well. Some of that was because of them. (Quarterback) Johnny Crooks made some plays on offense to keep plays alive. We were down 21-14 with about five or six minutes to go. That’s one of those games people said we were the favorite.”
Ottawa Hills coach Chris Hardman graduated Crooks and several other key skill players from last year’s team. The Bears had just one win through six games this season, including 1-1 in the TAAC.
“Chris does such a good job preparing his kids,” James said. “You can’t say, ‘We’re the better team. We’re going to just show up and win.’ It’s a rivalry.”
Northwood used to be a member of the Lakeshore Conference with Ottawa Hills, Danbury, Fostoria St. Wendelin, North Baltimore, Hopewell-Loudon and Seneca East.
The Rangers joined the Suburban Lakes League in 1986, while Ottawa Hills and Danbury became independents and the other four Lakeshore Conference teams jumped to the Midland Athletic League.
James said Northwood and Ottawa Hills weren’t big rivals when the Rangers were in the SLL and the Bears were an independent.
“When we went back in (TAAC) with them, the intensity racheted back up,” James said.
Northwood won the first four TAAC titles once it joined the conference, and Ottawa Hills won the TAAC in 2005. The Rangers took second place in 2005 and '06 and won the title last season.
Northwood traveled to Ottawa Hills two years ago and came home with a 31-9 victory.
After a season-opening loss to Lakota, the Rangers have won five in a row including last Friday’s 45-19 win at TAAC rival Hilltop.
“We’ve been playing better defensively,” James said. “Our front is playing pretty well. We have 15 kids playing on defense through the course of a game, rotating in, and we’ve had to play some guys early because of injury.
“The starters started rotating back in and some guys aren’t getting a whole lot of activity for playing time. It’s been a competitive business the last few weeks and that has helped us get better because we’re practicing hard.”
Linebacker Justin Grindle, a three-year starter, and fourth-year starting end Charles Artino are playing well on defense.
“Those two haven’t had a whole lot of tackles lately because a whole lot of guys are getting to the ball carrier,” James said. “Our defensive coordinator, Dave Russell, is doing a good job of putting our kids in position to make plays.”
Outside linebacker Mike Prothero leads the Rangers with 53 tackles, followed by Grindle with 50 and outside linebacker Corey Jones with 47.
Northwood’s offense is using a variety of running backs to keep the ball moving.
Quarterback Kyle Gunn has rushed for 528 yards and six touchdowns on 86 carries. Halfback Zach Bermejo has 43 carries for 417 yards and six TDs, and fullbacks Nate James and Grindle have combined to rush for more than 600 yards.
Nate James has 312 yards rushing and four scores, and Grindle has 307 yards and two scores. Alex Williams ran eight times for 156 yards and three TDs against Hilltop.
Coach James said he won’t pay any attention to Ottawa Hills’ record when the two teams meet next Friday. The Green Bears’ record, he said, can be misleading because they played a difficult non-conference schedule that included Evergreen, Gibsonburg and Ayersville.
“They lost 14-10 to Edon and lost a close one to Evergreen,” James said. “They could be 4-2 or 3-3. It’s one of those deals where you get in a bunch of close games and some years you come out on the positive end of it and some years you don’t.”