EVELETH — It was a night of firsts for the Rock Ridge football team in their first ever game as a program: First plays, first sacks, first touchdowns and most importantly, their first win as the Wolverines took down the Grizzlies 20-14, making history on opening night.
The Wolverines offense was led by junior running back Ryan Manninen, who rushed in all three Rock Ridge touchdowns to fuel their offense. The Grizzlies were in turn fueled by standout senior TJ Chiabotti, who scored both of the North Woods touchdowns.
Rock Ridge wasted little time punching in the first score in school history. After receiving the opening kickoff, the Wolverines drove 79 yards down the field on a drive that took 5:01 off the clock. Junior starting quarterback Griffin Dosan turned to Manninen as well as Jake Burress in the backfield as they cut up the field for some early gains.
First and 10 at the North Woods 43, Dosan released a quick pass to tight end Will Bittmann for the 11 yard gain, bringing Rock Ridge ever closer to paydirt. Later on second and 12, Burress took the handoff for an eight yard gain. A play later, Manninen took the direct snap for a six yard gain that gave Rock Ridge a first down at the North Woods 19.
A run from Ryan Herberg followed by another direct snap run to Manninen put the Wolverines 12 yards out from the endzone. On the very next play, Manninen took the hand off and charged in for the score, hurdling over the goal line to record the first ever Rock Ridge touchdown, putting the Wolverines on the board 6-0.
The first touchdown in the books, Rock Ridge co-head coaches Matt Anderson and Sean Strier described the large feeling of relief it was to get the first monkey off their backs.
“It’s definitely a confidence booster,” Streier said. “We were confident going in but scoring that first touchdown and getting it out the way is something you look forward to.”
“It’s a big release of energy,” Anderson added. “Football is a tough game and sometimes you don’t score a lot. It’s a battle so getting that first score kind of took the pressure off of us and let us focus up a bit. It was an affirmation of the things we’ve been working for these first few weeks.
North Woods’ first possession was short lived as another Rock Ridge first was made with Carter Flannigan recording the school’s first ever tackle-for-loss, pushing North Woods back four yards on third down. The play forced the Grizzlies to punt the ball away back to the Wolverines.
Rock Ridge’s next possession was short lived as well and they soon punted away, allowing the Grizzlies to take over once more. Their second offensive possession saw them with excellent field position as they started at their own 46. One blown play from the Wolverines later and Chiabotti took off, running in the score from 54 yards out to tie things at six.
Rock Ridge’s next drive was another long, sustained one as the game moved into the second quarter. The Wolverines marched down the field before eventually earning a first and 10 at the Grizzlies 15.
Hoping to score again, their final set of downs went back and forth starting with a five-yard loss on a pitch play. Bittmann recovered those yards and then some on a 14-yard completion, but a penalty and a three-yard loss on third down gave Rock Ridge fourth and nine. The fourth down pass to Bittmann from Dosan was incomplete, turning the ball over on downs.
The Wolverines next defensive highlight came on the following North Woods drive with Isaac Flatley sacking Grizzlies quarterback Ty Fabish for the team’s first sack in history. The 11-yard loss made it third and 21 for North Woods and they punted soon after.
Nearly spelling doom for the Wolverines, the historic home squad forgot about TJ Chiabotti on the ensuing drive. Chiabotti picked off Dylan Hedley (now at quarterback) on the first play of the Wolverines’ drive and returned the ball all the way to the Rock Ridge 7. Two plays later and Chiabotti had punched in his second score of the night to make it 14-6 after the two-point conversion.
The Wolverines regrouped on the ensuing possession. Starting on their own 34, Burress ran for large gains on back-to-back plays, first for 14 yards and then for 24 to give the Wolverines a first and 10 at the Grizzlies 30.
Burress marched forward for three more yards before Manninen took the next handoff and found his way home for a 27-yard score. The failed two-point conversion that followed meant North Woods led Rock Ridge 14-12 at halftime.
Struggling to contain Chiabotti in the first half, Streier and Anderson reassured the team at halftime and made a few minor adjustments ahead of the second half.
“We told them that we were playing well,” Streier said. “No one is doing anything wrong but it was just two plays where they did not execute. Ideally we don’t give up big plays or interceptions but they happen sometimes. Our defense has to respond on a short field like that and hold them. We made adjustments in the second half and it ended up paying off.”
“In the last few years, the kids in the Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert programs have been used to kind of backing off when their heels are to the fire,” Anderson said. “We wanted them to respond the right way. No one was yelling at anybody in the locker room. They were just focused. They knew what they had to do and we put together a good plan for the second half and we executed it.”
The final score of the game came late in the third on Rock Ridge’s second drive of the quarter. Starting at the Rock Ridge 45, Burress came up big once more, this time on a third down, 34-yard run that put the Wolverines back in the driver’s seat.
Turning to Manninen once more, the Wolverines punched it in from 11 yards out to take the lead 18-14. On the ensuing two-point play, Miigwen Tuchel ran in for the score, putting Rock Ridge up 20-14.
The Wolverines defense was stalwart for most of the second half, shutting down TJ Chiabotti and North Woods junior Jared Chiabotti offensively. With nowhere to go, the Grizzlies punted the ball away to the Wolverines who had multiple chances to add to their lead.
Unfortunately, penalties and botched plays ended some impressive Rock Ridge drives late in the game. However, the defense was there to make sure North Woods never found another chance to score.
When the final buzzer rang, Rock Ridge had won its first ever game 20-14 over North Woods.
Securing the win, coach Anderson was able to sum it all up.
“It’s what these kids have been working for,” Anderson said. “We had a gameplan and we executed it and the kids played their hearts out to get the win for this new program and this new school.”
On Manninen’s impressive three touchdown night, the coaches described the junior as the team’s next big leader.
“He’s a dog,” Anderson said. “He’s our big guy. He’s a big vocal leader. He’s a captain in training, our ‘internship program’ as Coach Streier would call it. He plays with a lot of emotion and he worked hard all summer to get where he is. He’s proof that hard work pays off. When you dedicate yourself like him, good things are going to happen. He even had some not so bright moments tonight and he’s going to learn and get better.”
“He’s someone kids look to,” Streier added. “We have a lot of lead-by-example kids on the team and he’s one of the few that will step up and cheer everyone on from the sidelines. He’s a starter but he’s cheering when he’s not in the game, pumping guys up. He showed how big of a leader he can be tonight.”
Hoping to clean some things up ahead of next week, the coaches both agreed that the team will need to find a way to not leave potential scores off the board like they did late against the Grizzlies.
“We have to calm ourselves down in the bigger situations,” Anderson said. “Focusing on executing instead of looking past plays. Do this play and then focus on the next one.
“We’ll have to correct some things we did wrong,” Streier mentioned. “We’ll have film to look at and show them a few things. Execution is what matters and we have to just focus on what’s in front of us.”
Rock Ridge will travel to Two Harbors next Friday for a date with Agates. Smiles on their faces after Gatorade baths from the team, the coaches had just one thing to say after closing out the first game.
NW 6 8 0 0 — 14
RR 6 6 8 0 — 20
R: Ryan Manninen 23 run (run fail)
N: TJ Chiabotti 54 run (pass fail)
N: Chiabotti 2 run (Chiabotti run)
R: Manninen 27 run (pass fail)
R: Manninen 11 run (Miigwen Tuchel run)