Coach Jason Fowler had a four-season plan when he took over the Rocky River football program. Fowler knew that, despite early struggles, building toward that vision was the direction he would guide the Ravens.
It was a slow process, but Fowler stuck to the blueprint he and his coaching staff created. The Ravens went winless their first season, and support for the program eroded more with each loss – even among the Rocky River student body. Year 2 was better, and then in Year 3 the Ravens had their breakout season last year, which culminated in their first winning record and first trip to the Class 4-AA playoffs in school history.
Now, in Fowler’s fourth season, the Ravens are better than they’ve ever been and support and expectations for the program is at an all-time high.
After dropping their first game of the season to Richmond Senior, not even senior defensive back Lamar Hood could imagine where the Ravens currently sit entering their Oct. 18 showdown with rival Butler – a program whose come to symbolize a measuring stick for all other programs after claiming three of the last four state championships.
The Ravens have won seven consecutive games, but a win against the Bulldogs would put Rocky River one step closer to winning a conference championship, signifying the next notch on Fowler’s master plan.
“I’ll say it,” Hood said when asked of the magnitude of this game. “Yeah this is the biggest game (I’ve played). This is basically the conference championship before the conference championship. I think this is the game of the week in the whole state.”
Hood is a two-time Southwestern 4A all-conference pick and is the Ravens most decorated player of all time. He’s seen the disappointment of the last few years lead to the development of a program just laying its foundation and he hopes to be an integral part of taking the next step – a lead in the football-rich Southwestern 4A after defeating the mighty Butler Bulldogs.
To Fowler, such a monstrous achievement isn’t all too unrealistic.
“We match up well with them,” Fowler said. “This is the first year that I can say, at least personnel-wise, we match up with them in a lot of spots.
“Eighty percent of this (Butler team) is the same team we beat on JV last year and they beat us by a touchdown the year before. Our kids know it’s a lot of the same crowd and they’re not going to back down or be intimidated in the least.”
The Ravens trailed 7-6 at Butler last season before a costly turnover opened the floodgates of a 40-6 Bulldog win. This time, the programs meet at Rocky River – a place the Ravens haven’t lost at this season. But to Fowler, that’s just another part of his master plan.
“Our program goals were to make the playoffs, which we did last year; to go undefeated at home, which we are right now; and to win the conference and go from there,” Fowler said. “This is a big game, but it’s big because it’s the next game and the next game is always the biggest.”
Fowler’s program goals are hitting home this season, Hood said. The Ravens lost 20 players from their first-ever graduating senior class, but not only have they not skipped a beat, they’ve taken the next step.
“This is the best team we’ve had here,” Hood said. “We have a lot of skill guys and have better players all over the field.”
But the Ravens’ defense starts with Hood. He’s fourth on the team in tackles and has recorded a forced fumble – which he returned for a touchdown. He also has an interception while leading the team in pass defenses.
While Hood has been outstanding defensively, he’s far from alone. Linebackers Caleb Brown and Danny Dunning have been superb as have defensive backs Cordell Forest, Jaire Alexander and Darin Washington, to name a few.
The Ravens have always relied on a stout defense and sound running game, both of which they have in spades this season with the three-headed running attack of Deron Davis, Rashaad Brannon and Elijah Jett. Throw in quarterbacks Christian Allen-Brown and Naiil Ramadan and receivers Devryn Galloway, Aaron Cole, Alexander and Kaylan Love-Soles and it’s easy to see why the Ravens feels they have what it takes to topple the Bulldogs this week.
To win what would undoubtedly be the biggest game in school history and the defining moment of a burgeoning program in its infancy, Hood knows it will come down to the defense.
“We can’t control their ‘Xs’ and ‘Os’ and who it is they put out there or what they’re trying to do,” Hood said. “We have to go hard every play, make sure tackles and not let off those boys at all.”
With Hood as the Ravens’ last line of defense, Fowler feels confident they can neutralize the Bulldogs plethora of offensive weapons – which begin with dual-threat quarterback Anthony Ratliff and his collection of skill guys.
“(Ratliff) is special,” Fowler said. “I mean he’s special, he can run right past you and he can beat you with his arm, too. He’s a special player.”
Fowler said he’s glad Hood is protecting the back end of his defense to combat Ratliff and the typically dynamic Bulldog offense.
“He doesn’t fear anybody,” Fowler said. “He won’t back down and he does everything that we need him to do back there.”
Hood is relishing his role as the anchor of the Ravens’ defense, but said a win against the vaunted Bulldogs would help validate the hard work and the growth of the Ravens since Hood and his fellow seniors arrived.
To do so, all the Ravens need to do is execute and tackle cleanly – something Hood and his mates will look to do.
“It’s like when (former San Francisco 49er quarterback) Steve Young won the Super Bowl, it’s about getting that monkey off our back,” Hood said, referring to the shadow Super Bowl-winning quarterback Joe Montana cast on the team. “You get tired of losing, it’s like beating your big brother. Right now it’s just another game, but it would be big.
“I guess we have a chip on our shoulder, but we don’t want to play mad all the time. We want to play aggressive and confidently and go do our thing. They still don’t respect us and I don’t blame them because we haven’t really played anyone, but I think this Friday we get to show them. This Friday we get to make a statement.”