Rockets hope to keep things close, againIf there’s any team that the now seven-time straight 9-man Region 1 champion Napoleon-Gackle-Streeter Imperials should be concerned about, it’s the Rockets of New Rockford-Sheyenne.
By: Michael Savaloja, The Jamestown Sun
If there’s any team that the now seven-time straight 9-man Region 1 champion Napoleon-Gackle-Streeter Imperials should be concerned about, it’s the Rockets of New Rockford-Sheyenne.
The two teams will clash at 2 p.m. today in the first round of the state high school 9-man football playoffs at Napoleon, and if history has anything to do with it the game should be fun to watch.
The Rockets upended the Imperials — one of the state’s most successful football programs in recent years — two years ago in New Rockford by the final of 28-21. It was one of only two Imperial losses that season.
Then last fall, the Rockets trekked to Napoleon and gave the Imperials all they could handle in an 8-6 Napoleon-GS victory. What’s interesting about that game is that the Imperials went on to a record of 8-1, while the Rockets finished the year with a mark of just 3-6.
“A lot of our kids this year were on the sidelines for (last year’s game), and I don’t think they think back to that game too much,” said New Rockford-Sheyenne head coach Elliott Belquist. “In that game we had some opportunities for some big plays and we missed out on them. It was a game of field position, and neither team could get their offenses rolling.”
But plenty of unknown entities will be lurking today in Napoleon. The Rockets lost nine starters off last year’s team to graduation, but have played to an impressive record of 6-3 with just 2 seniors on a roster of 20 players.
The Rockets clinched its playoff berth as the No. 4 team out of Region 2, but the new region alignment has set up other unknowns. The new 10-team, four-region system didn’t allow any team in the state to play an opponent outside of their own region, meaning the Rockets and the Imperials didn’t have a chance to size up each other on the field this year as they have in year’s past.
“Usually you’d have some teams that have played teams in those regions down there and you could get some kind of idea what each region is like,” Belquist said. “This year, you absolutely don’t know because nobody has played anyone else out of their region.”
So the question that will become clearer today is just what region has the toughest dogs in the state, and Belquist knows Napoleon-GS always has a pretty loud bark.
“They look big and strong, and they look like what you’d expect from a team that’s lost one game and are a No. 1 seed,” Belquist said. “The most important thing is containing their quarterback. When teams let him break containment, he and they are very tough to stop.”
That quarterback is senior Jonah Schwartzenberger, who has tossed 1,628 yards and 22 touchdowns on 119 of 172 pass attempts, while also rushing for 573 yards and 6 scores on 89 carries.
The Rockets and the Imperials (8-1) have put up similar numbers offensively this year, with the Rockets averaging 32.9 points per game to the Imperials 31 points per game, but where things differ is on the defensive side of the ball.
The Rockets have allowed an average of 22.4 points to opponents, while the Imperials have allowed opponents just 118 points in 9 games for an average of 13.1.
What may help the Rockets is that they’ve played in and have won close games this season, which they’ll be hoping for again today. New Rockford-Sheyenne edged out a 30-28 win over Drayton-Valley-Edinburg, and also handed Lakota-Adams-Edmore its first loss of the season by the final of 40-34. The Raiders ended the year at 5-4, just missing the playoff cut in Region 2.
“I think those close games will help us. You start losing those close ones, it just becomes a habit and the kids don’t think they can get that killer instinct in them,” Belquist said. “You can see the difference. The kids don’t panic and their heads aren’t down. They are going to play until the end and see what happens.”
The two seniors that have led the charge for the Rockets are quarterback Cobey Allmaras and receiver Mason Haley. Allmaras has tossed for 1,221 yards and 16 touchdowns, completing 88 of 169 pass attempts, while rushing for 167 yards and 6 scores.
Haley has racked up 577 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns on 32 catches this season, and his younger brother, sophomore Ethan Haley, has hauled in 23 passes for 375 yards and 4 scores. Mason Haley also leads the team with 5 interceptions.
Junior running back Alex Perleberg has had a solid season to this point for the Rockets, strolling to 937 yards and 11 TDs on 173 carries. The leader on defense for the team has been junior Josh Edmonson who has piled up 111 total tackles (63 solo).
“Our defense has played all right at times, better as of late, but their defense looks good as well,” Belquist said. “We’re not a team that is going to go and blow people away. At times we have an explosive offense, but a lot of times it takes awhile to adjust to the speed of different teams.”
But as a whole, the season the Rockets have put together has to be considered a success. After losing a majority of starters on a 3-win team, to turn things around and make the playoffs with a largely untested group of kids in a new region was no small feat.
The team will be hoping to extend that run today.
“The kids are pumped up and they’re having fun. There’s never any complaining about running in practice or anything we do. You can tell they really like the game of football,” Belquist said. “I just hope our guys are ready to play.”
Sun sports writer Michael Savaloja can be reached at (701) 952-8461 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org