The Rocky River football team had a breakout season last year, as the Ravens earned their first playoff berth, had their first winning season and won their first conference games in school history.
Although they’ve relied on a balanced and multi-dimensional offense, the Ravens’ calling card has always been their smothering defense, and this season is no different.
But with all of the good from last season came some concerns this offseason, with the loss of 19 seniors – many of whom were key contributors to the Ravens’ success. With all of the shuffling, it’s understandably taken some time to iron out the kinks and get players adjusted to their new roles on both sides of the ball.
In the Ravens most recent game, a 26-8 win over South Mecklenburg on Aug. 30, the defense was asked to bail out the Ravens suddenly fledgling offense.
“Our offense was bad,” coach Jason Fowler said. “I mean we haven’t seen anything like that from us since our first year here. We were terrible.”
Luckily for Fowler and Rocky River, senior linebacker Danny Dunning was – much like he has been for the past three seasons – in exactly the right spot.
“He bailed us out without a doubt,” Fowler said.
In a span of 19 seconds, Dunning reeled off two miraculous plays that may end up spurring the Ravens toward another winning season. Less than 20 seconds after the outside linebacker returned a fumble recovery 57 yards for a touchdown, Dunning added a 50-yard interception return.
“It was fun,” Dunning said. “Last game I had my first pick and my first touchdown of my (high school) career. I want more of them and I hope that helps our entire defense. We need more turnovers, more pick-six and more ways to score on defense to help the offense out.”
Dunning has helped the Ravens’ defense put their offense back on the field for three seasons now. And much like the Ravens’ program, he’s grown each year he’s been on campus. When he first arrived, Rocky River didn’t have either the facilities or the respect the program sought. Dunning said after the team got a weight room following his sophomore season, they began getting some wins and earning respect. But Dunning isn’t prepared to leave the program before it gets all the way to where he thinks it should be.
In his sophomore season, the Ravens won three games and Dunning contributed 55 tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and added three fumble recoveries. Last year, when Rocky River went 7-5, Dunning upped his production to 86 tackles, 2.5 sacks and forced and recovered a fumble.
This season, with 19 tackles in two games and his first touchdowns since he was 8, Dunning is poised for a huge individual season.
“He’s matured tremendously,” Fowler said. “The growth he’s had has been fun to see. He’s started for us since his sophomore season and has gotten bigger and stronger each year and has been a big part of what we do. He does a good job for us.”
While helping the Ravens achieve more than they previously had is his primary goal, Dunning said he wants to top 100 tackles on the season.
“I don’t see 100 tackles being a problem,” Fowler said. “He has a nose for the ball, he’s good in pass coverage, he’s just in the right place where he needs to be.”
With a smart and effective linebacking corps that features Dunning, Caleb Brown and John Henderson, the Ravens are prepared to face their toughest schedule to date – another by-product of a successful season last year.
They’ve already played perennial power Richmond County and are set to play Sun Valley on Sept. 6 in addition to playing non-conference foes including at Hunter Huss, at Marvin Ridge and closing the season with Butler, Independence and at Porter Ridge.
The daunting schedule is just the way Dunning likes it, saying it’s a sign the Ravens are getting closer to where he sees them becoming as a program.
“It’s a tough schedule, but it’s so much more rewarding if you get the wins,” he said. “Of course it’s a little harder to manage, but it’s much better than playing a lesser team. I’d rather play better competition and have a challenge because it’s much more rewarding and you get people’s respect that way.
“We’ve been improving each year and I’m excited to see what we can do this year, but we’re still looking for a big win to put us on the map,”
The linebacker said his team needs to focus on correcting some simple mistakes that have reoccurred in the first two games, but added the Ravens are getting better each day in practice.
“We’ve been OK, but we could do much better,” Dunning said. “It was good to get a win, but there are definitely some mistakes that we can pick up on.
“We need to work on our tackling. We have a lot of little things that we need to improve on, but we really need to improve our tackling.”
With a few minor adjustments, Dunning said the Ravens have the talent to be a playoff team. But he won’t stop at just reaching the post season again this year.
“I think that if we go further in the playoffs, it’s one step closer to getting more respect,” he said. “Before I leave this school I want to help us get better. I don’t want to be known as the Rocky River from our first couple of years, I want to get us up there with the Butlers and the Independences.
“We were the new people in town and used to just get pushed around, but I don’t want that anymore. I want us to be a powerhouse right there with them.”
With the steady Dunning leading the Ravens’ defense, Fowler said his team has a good shot at adding to last season’s accomplishments.
“He’s taken on more this season,” Fowler said. “He’s making all of the calls, making all of the checks and moving people in the right places. He’s going to make the play when it comes his way but he’s not a cowboy out there trying to do too much. He’s in the right spot all the time and he’s making plays at the right time.”
With his focus on helping the Ravens in his final season, Dunning knows there’s a lot more to accomplish along the way. But when he looks back on how far he’s come and how far the Ravens program has emerged, he’s going to be happy for his time spearheading the Rocky River defense.
“I want to have a better record and go farther in the playoffs than we did last year. I want to have over 100 tackles; it’s something that’s real important to me,” Dunning said as his eyes wandered around the Ravens’ stadium.
“Of course I’m going to miss this. It’s a beautiful field; a beautiful place to play and I’ve had a bond with my coaches for four years now, so I’m really going to miss it. But I’m not done yet, there’s a lot left to do here.”