For the Rocky River football team, it’s OK if people don’t give them their due respect and either can’t or aren’t willing to appreciate all they’ve accomplished this season.
In fact, the Ravens would prefer if nobody noticed they’re in line to become the first team not named Butler or Independence to win a conference title since 2000.
So go ahead, call them underdogs. They’re comfortable living in the shadows of the so-called conference elites as they try to do something that hasn’t been done since many of the current Ravens were still wearing diapers and long before Rocky River was a school – much less an emerging football powerhouse.
Despite winning a school-record eight games and owning sole possession of first-place in the traditionally football-rich Southwestern 4A conference, they’re still probably not favored to win their showdown with Independence on Nov. 1.
But that’s OK with them.
“We like being the underdog,” coach Jason Fowler said. “It doesn’t matter. Let the other guys have all of the pressure and we’ll keep winning games.”
The Ravens (8-1, 4-0) have won more games than any conference team and have a chance to join even more rarified air with a win this week.
It’s been nearly 14 years to the day that another football team has pulled off what Rocky River has a chance to do this week by defeating Independence (6-3, 3-1), their crosstown rival and conference nemesis.
On Nov. 5, 1999 West Charlotte High became the last team to defeat Butler and Independence during the same season as they knocked off the Patriots, 55-12, after dispatching Butler, 15-8.
But that came more than a decade ago and was played well before Independence’s 109-game win streak and the Patriots’ seven consecutive state championships. Butler was in just its third season as a school and would make the playoffs for the very first time that year, a place they’ve become a mainstay.
In the 14 years since West Charlotte’s win over both teams, Butler and Independence have dominated the Southwestern 4A landscape, winning each conference title and combining to go 330-57.
“We like being the underdog and not getting the respect,” Ravens senior receiver Devryn Galloway said. “We’re confident in ourselves and it comes with (us) fully buying in and getting stronger as a program.
“We have a different mentality now. We’re more willing to sacrifice ourselves now for a win than we were in the past.”
Fowler has seen the growth first hand in his team, which didn’t win a game in its first season, to last year, when they set a number of school records and made the playoffs for the first time.
But this week, against Mint Hill-rival Independence, means more. Especially after a heartbreaking, one-point loss a season ago on an incomplete two-point conversion attempt in the final seconds.
It’s easy to dismiss that game and that play – a play which many Rocky Rivers supporters swear was a completed pass and earned the Ravens what would have then been their signature win.
But once again, it only fuels the inferno raging inside one of the state’s hottest teams.
“They’re ready for this,” Fowler said. “This is the one we’ve had penciled in on the calendar. All of them are important and (so is) this one because it’s the next one, but our kids, they want this one.”
Rocky River’s emergence is a testament to the Ravens’ balanced offensive and defensive philosophies, but has hinged on their reliable receivers making big plays when their number have been called – something that will be a key to beating the Patriots and their talented secondary.
“(Independence has) athletes,” Fowler said. “They’re huge up front and have good athletes in the secondary, so it’s going to be a good little cat-and-mouse game to see how they try to stop us and how we make adjustments. It should be a great ball game.”
While individually the Rocky River receivers’ stats aren’t incredibly gaudy, combined they’ve helped lead the Ravens to a new stratosphere of success.
Aaron Cole leads the Ravens with 23 catches and has posted 253 yards and two touchdowns. Galloway has 21 receptions for 231 yards and two touchdowns, and juniors Kaylan Love-Soles (14 catches, 153 yards, one touchdown) and Jaire Alexander (17 receptions, 341 yards and a touchdown) have produced when called upon.
“You look at the stat sheet, they’re all within four or five catches of each other and they all bring something different to the table,” Fowler said. “They just want to make plays and don’t care who is catching the ball. Devryn is the possession guy who finds a way to get open. (Aaron) is the guy who will go across the middle and make the tough catches and get the tough yards. (Kaylan) is a burner, he’s the one we want to get one-on-one and matched up so we can take some shots. You put Jaire in there and you just get him the ball and let him be Jaire. He’s the athlete with all of the wiggle and everything.”
If Rocky River is to add to the Ravens’ list of accomplishments by beating Independence and inching a step closer to becoming the first different conference team in 14 years to hoist the league title, Fowler knows the outcome will likely come down to a receiver coming through in a big spot.
“One of (our receivers is) going to have to make a big play at a big time for us, but I feel confident they’ll be ready when the moment comes, “ he said.
“They all bring something different to the table, but they all like to block and have that selflessness where if we need to run it 50 times to win a game, they’ll do their best to get on the edge, block and open up those lanes.”
So, even if the Ravens’ receivers aren’t filling up the stat sheet, they’re doing all they can to earn a win and a conference title.
“We’ve put so much into this (program) that we want wins and we want to get results so we’re willing to do whatever it takes,” Cole said. “We know what we have to do on the field to win this game. We’re going to come out with the same mentality that we did against Butler and know that we’re going to win this game.”
If you doubt them, that’s fine with them. Even if the Ravens aren’t given credit for what they’ve accomplished so far, that’s OK with them.
“It’s just one step closer to the state championship where we want to be,” Love-Soles said.
“We know nobody has beaten Butler and Independence since the 1990s, and it’s something we’re aware of,” he said. “We know what we want, but we’ll let Friday night speak for all of us.”