Ranger's quirky approach helps ground game

Brooke Stevens/The Herald
Forest Park senior TJ Bieker chugged a half-gallon of milk during the talent portion of the Mr. Forest Park Pageant in April. The senior lineman excels at eating contests, as well as motivating teammates and creating an upbeat mood at practices. He’ll try to help the Rangers advance to the Class 2A sectional championship Friday night, when Forest Park will play at South Spencer in a semifinal matchup. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. EDT at Reo.

Herald Sports Writer

TJ Bieker might be the only person around to use a stick of salami as a performance prop.

He did that in April when he was crowned Mr. Forest Park in the school’s pageant, taking a bite out of the full-size deli selection he bought at a local grocery store. The Forest Park offensive tackle also boosted his chances of winning by downing a half-gallon of milk during the talent portion of the event. Just in case Bieker needed it, a trash can was nearby. Bieker pretended to throw up while in front of everyone, but there wasn’t any faking when he exited the stage.

“You can’t chug a gallon and keep it down,” Bieker said, before pausing. “I chugged a half-gallon, but I couldn’t keep it down.”

Bieker also doesn’t shy away from eating contests. Tuesday he participated in a competition to see who could eat a Big Mac the fastest, finishing as the runner-up only because the winner, Christian Graves of the Ranger boys tennis team, “took the whole thing, rolled it up and shoved it down his throat,” Bieker said. “I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ It took me a little bit longer than usual because I was marveling at that.”

But in a previous pep rally session for Forest Park fall sports, Bieker fared better when athletes competed to see who could first scarf down two Oreo cookies at the bottom of a pan of whipped cream.

“I dominated that,” he said.

A different task awaits Bieker and Forest Park (1-8) Friday night, when the Rangers will travel to Reo and square off against South Spencer (4-6) for the second time in the Class 2A sectional semifinals. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. EDT.

Forest Park will be ready, in part because of its redheaded lineman — Bieker’s nickname is Big Red — who’s grown used to cracking up teammates and coaches.
“I just kind of laughed because I felt he would be a good contestant with his personality and humor,” Forest Park coach Ross Fuhs said of Bieker chugging the milk. “He’s a good guy, he’s a funny guy. He’d do anything for anybody, but you just know with his personality he’s going to go up there and do something funny and unique.”

The stunt reminded Fuhs, a 2003 Southridge graduate, of his junior year when he and teammates were line dancing in the locker room when their game against Tecumseh was in a rain delay. Fuhs and the guys were able to get away with the antics because they were dominating the Braves.

Similarly, Bieker knows when and how to interject some humor, or if the situation calls for something different. With Fuhs renewing a commitment to weightlifting and the Rangers having to slog through a difficult season, there’s been lots of times when teammates have needed not just a laugh but a feeling that they’re helping build the program. Bieker is there for those moments, too.

“TJ’s a motivator, I think people look up to him,” Fuhs said. “If things are going bad, he’ll be encouraging.”

Fuhs said there have been times when Bieker volunteered for the scout team defense during practice. That he plays offense and is also a senior doesn’t matter, Fuhs said. He’ll help out any way he can.

“A lot of times it’ll get really hard, people start getting down and they just need somebody to pick them up,” Bieker said.

Bieker has steadily improved all season, Fuhs said, and that’s something the entire team will need Friday, four weeks removed from a 47-10 loss to the Rebels. Not counting three sacks in that contest, Bieker and the rest of the line allowed the team to rush for 165 yards, including 145 from Josh Voegerl.

In the last five games, Voegerl has averaged 103 yards per contest, including two 100-yard outings, but isn't expected to play Friday because of concussion symptoms. Travis Schnell ranks second on the Rangers with 431 yard rushing.

After gashing the Rebels last month, Voegerl deflected all the attention to the line. It’s not a surprise that Fuhs, a former lineman, said the Rangers’ offensive and defensive lines will dictate what happens Friday. His guys need to identify blocking keys better and continue communicating, he said. That’s also exactly what he’s seen from Bieker.

“We trust him doing anything, whether it’s pass-blocking, run-blocking, pulling, he’s doing a lot better job communicating,” Fuhs said. “Overall, he’s probably improved the most of anybody.”

South Spencer is trying to do what it did last year: follow up a regular-season win against Forest Park with another victory in the postseason. A year ago, the Rebels doubled up the Rangers 42-21 before a 14-0 first-round win that came only after the teams entered halftime scoreless. Bieker said the team needs “to keep an open mind — no one is unbeatable.” Fuhs referenced the team’s ability to make the postseason encounter closer last year as one reason no one is upset the Rangers drew a rematch with the Rebels. Bieker stated flatly: “I really want to take down South Spencer,” especially considering Bieker has a cousin who plays for the Rebels. Familiarity will abound Friday night.

“We feel like we’ve got a good grasp on what they’re going to do,” Fuhs said. “They’ve put in a few little new things but for the most part they’re going to do the same things they did against us (in the regular season). So it’s just going to come down to us executing and communicating.”  

Contact John Patishnock at jpatishnock@dcherald.com.

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