River Rouge plowing over foes as it chases elusive state championship

David Goricki
The Detroit News

River Rouge — De’Andre Bulley and his River Rouge teammates felt like they had a legitimate chance to make a long postseason run last season, possibly ending up at Ford Field for a shot at the Division 3 state championship.

Instead, River Rouge’s season came to a crashing halt with a heartbreaking 7-6 predistrict loss to Detroit King, and all River Rouge could do was sit and wonder what may have been as King went on to win its third state championship in four years.

Bulley and River Rouge used that loss as motivation to get things done during the 2019 season and they have dominated during the state playoffs this time around, starting with a 53-0 predistrict win over Detroit Mumford, continuing with a 38-8 district final win over Redford Thurston and moving on to a 49-14 rout of No. 8 and Catholic League champion Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in a regional final.

River Rouge's Xavier Smith catches a pass during practice.

River Rouge — 11-1 and ranked No. 14 — will face No. 20 Chelsea (12-0) in a Division 3 state semifinal Saturday at Dearborn.

Bulley, a punishing 6-foot, 245-pound running back with 4.6 speed, has rushed for more than 1,800 yards his senior year, including 220 in the road win at St. Mary’s.

“It was frustrating since we have a brotherhood and it was the last time playing for a lot of them; I had another year to go,” said Bulley of last year’s tough loss to King. “I actually apologized to Caleef Jenkins and told myself that can’t be me next year.”

Bulley, who was a 1,000-yard rusher while splitting time with Jenkins last year, de-committed from Akron and now has offers from Syracuse and Northern Illinois, along with Minnesota, Indiana, Kentucky, Western Michigan and several others.

More: The Detroit News breaks down all 16 high school football state semifinal games

More: Latrell Thompkins leads physical Detroit Denby into Division 5 state semifinals

More: Michigan high school football playoff schedule: State semifinals

Bulley enjoys being the workhorse in the River Rouge offense.

“The difference is from being a backup to a starter,” Bulley said. “I was backup to Alexander Carter my sophomore year, then split time last year with Caleef. I like getting the ball a lot. I like being a leader. I like to carry my team on my back and have them know they can depend on me.

“I can read the defense, I’m patient, but I have a burst and I have good feet. I can run outside or run over people. Last Saturday was my highlight, a real different environment being far from home, a playoff game and the media saying we might take an L. We had to prove everybody wrong. The line did a great job. Everybody did what they were supposed to do, and we played like a family.”

When asked what River Rouge needed to do to be successful against Chelsea, which lost to Edwardsburg in last year’s Division 4 state title game at Ford Field, Bulley said: “We have to start out fast, finish fast and play well in the middle.”

River Rouge has the ability to jump on opponents quickly with a special teams standout in Eastern Michigan-bound receiver/cornerback Xavier Smith, who has returned six kicks for TDs, including three on punt returns.

“It’s a blessing to be playing at this time of year,” Smith said. “They have a good program and we have a good program, so it should be a great game.”

Toledo-bound linebacker Deshawn Walker said the 31-24 win over Southfield A&T in Week 9 was his highlight. He had 14 tackles and an interception to prevent A&T from making the playoffs.

“I’m excited to be playing this deep in the playoffs,” said Walker, who has 98 tackles, including 12 sacks. “I always tell Bulley that if we get a three-and-out he’s got to score. We depend on each other so if he does his job then I do my job. We’re competitive. I know a lot of people are scared of him.”

River Rouge football head coach Corey Parker talks to his players during practice at Panther Stadium.

River Rouge has an outstanding secondary, which includes 6-3 senior safety Chastin Cross, who limited A&T’s Louisville-bound receiver Christian Fitzpatrick to one catch out of 12 targets. Cross and Smith are joined by safety Joshua Wiley, who has offers from West Virginia, Toledo and Western Michigan, David Carter and Leroy Watson.

Corey Parker has turned River Rouge into a state power in his 10 years as head coach — 80-15 record the last eight years — including a Division 5 state final appearance in 2015, a 40-34 loss to Grand Rapids West Catholic, and to Division 4 state semifinal appearances the next two years, a 20-14 loss to Detroit Country Day in ’16 and a 32-21 loss to Edwardsburg in ‘17.

“The kids are excited and I’m excited about playing at this point of the season,” said Parker, who admitted that it meant a lot to him to defeat St. Mary’s since he played in the Catholic League for Detroit DePorres back in the early 2000s before playing his college ball at Eastern Michigan.

“It’s a great feeling for me to see how these guys have grown from Day 1, when they were 14 years old when they got here and grown to the men that they are, but more importantly successful men.”