River Rouge defeated Chelsea 14-7 in the state Division 3 football semifinal at Dearborn High School on Saturday.
Mareyohn Hrabowski and Deandre Bulley scored for River Rouge (12-1) in the fourth quarter to pull out the victory and book the school's second state finals appearance in five years.
River Rouge lost to Grand Rapids West Catholic 40-34 in the Division 5 championship in 2015 while the school reached the Division 4 state semifinals in 2016 and ‘17.
Mitch Reynolds scored on a 20-yard run to give Chelsea 7-0 lead at halftime.
Chelsea defeated Allen Park 28-27 last week in the regional final. River Rouge beat Orchard Lake St. Mary’s 49-14 in its regional final.
Each team committed a turnover on its first possession.
Chelsea’s Daniel Golding forced River Rouge to fumble, which was recovered by Josiah Fitch. A few players later, Alexander White had a sack for River Rouge and then Mareyohn Hrabowski intercepted a pass thrown by Chelsea quarterback Griffen Murphy.
Penalties proved River Rouge's undoing in the first half.
Xavier Smith broke off a 20-yard run that was called back for a chop block penalty, which was River Rouge’s fourth penalty on offense. Chelsea’s defense forced another fourth down, prompting River Rouge punter Avery Burch to run on a fake but he didn’t get to the marker.
Murphy's quarterback sneak for a first down set up Reynolds' touchdown, which came with 6:46 left in the first half.
River Rouge ventured deep into Chelsea territory late in the first half but the drive ended on an interception by Chelsea’s Joe Taylor. River Rouge had not been held scoreless in the first half this season.
“We struggled to get the ball down the field," Hrabowski said. "When we tried big pass plays, we couldn’t get them.”
River Rouge coach Corey Parker said he evaluated the offensive plan after the scoreless half.
“We were trying to assess why we couldn’t score, we weren’t worried about not scoring," Parker said. "Who are we to think we have to score every single quarter?”
River Rouge stopped Chelsea deep in its own territory to open the second half.
Penalties kept Chelsea’s offense from driving down the field and Rouge forced a punt.
Bulley's 30-yard run sparked River Rouge, which found itself in Chelsea territory again. Hrabowski scored with 9:02 left to tie it at 7-7.
River Rouge's Smith punt return to the end zone negated called back with a personal foul penalty on a block.
Hrabowski said he was quick to forget the flags that hindered some of his team’s drives.
“You have to have a short-term memory and you can’t remember the bad stuff," he said. "We kept going and never looked backward.”
Parker said he told his team to just play a clean game.
“The refs were calling it tight, so let's just play tight," the coach said. "We finished a lot of great plays today.”
Niegel Payne highlighted River Rouge's winning drive, taking an end-around for a first down. River Rouge was back in the red zone with five minutes remaining.
Bulley, who didn’t have a carry for nearly a full quarter due to being shaken up, came back and rushed into the end zone for the go-ahead score with 3:38 left.
“It changed the game a little bit when Bulley went down," Hrabowski said. "When he came back, the holes opened up again and he changed the momentum of the game.”
Chelsea’s offense had one more drive. Murphy threw an incomplete pass to Reynolds that was broken up by River Rouge's Ronnie Smith.
River Rouge’s Leamon Jones sacked Murphy on third down with three minutes left and then Murphy’s deep attempt was incomplete, which resulted in a turnover on downs.
Hrabowski was proud of his performance and credited his team.
“I couldn’t do it without the O-line," he said. "They’re the best O-line I could ever ask for.”
Parker put in perspective what a state championship would mean.
“Oh wow, it would be an eye-opener for everyone in the state, they’re now on notice that hey River Rouge hasn’t went away yet. This community means something for me and I want to win it for this city.”
River Rouge plays undefeated Muskegon at Ford Field on Saturday at 7 p.m.
Zach Sturgill is a freelance writer