Rebels eventually douse Rangers’ defensive fire

Jake May/The Herald
Steam floated from the head of Forest Park’s Nathan Libbert as he dealt with the Rangers’ season-ending defeat on a chilly Friday night in Reo. The Rangers stuck with South Spencer through a scoreless first half before the Rebels broke through with two touchdowns to down Forest Park 14-0. For more photos click here.


By JOANNE NORELL
Herald Sports Writer

REO — In many respects, Forest Park’s two contests with South Spencer this season were polar opposites.

The first was a three-touchdown South Spencer win dictated by a gunslinging Rebel offense and Ranger miscues. The second was trench warfare, controlled by both defenses.

In the end, the result was the same as Forest Park dropped a 14-0 decision in the first round of the Class 2A sectional Friday at Fred Ayer Field.

“We played like this could possibly be the last game of our season and we still made some key mistakes, and that’s why we came out on the wrong end,” senior quarterback and linebacker Miles Leonard said.  “But we really came out on fire and we played like we had no tomorrow. That’s really what we needed to do all year and it was lacking at some points.”

Though plagued by injuries, the Rangers (4-6) didn’t refrain from making statements with their defense. Forest Park dallied with new zone defensive sets, including a blitzing package that kept Rebel quarterback Walker Franklin on the run and rendered the rushing game practically nonexistent in the first half.

Forest Park limited South Spencer (6-4) to just 80 total yards and three first downs in the first two quarters. After missing a field goal on their opening drive, the Rangers buckled down to stop a 48-yard drive with two consecutive sacks. They forced a punt on the Rebels’ next possession and Austin Kempf recovered a fumbled handoff in the second quarter to keep South Spencer out of the end zone.

“Our defense was fired up,” Leonard said. “We did some new things and it got us excited. We were fired up and kept hitting and kept coming. Our overall team morale was probably the highest it’s been all season. That’s why we performed the way we did.”

But the Rebels found a way to match Forest Park’s defensive intensity. The Rangers appeared to have offensive momentum early, and on the second play from scrimmage, running back Dakota Geyer grabbed a 49-yard catch-and-run and darted down to the Rebel 22-yard line. They made it to the 9 on a 10-yard run by Geyer, but a sack forced the unsuccessful field goal attempt.

Leonard threw two interceptions in the next three possessions and a rash of penalties afflicted both sides in a scoreless first half.

Then, the Rebels abandoned the pass.

Franklin attempted just four passes after halftime, but his backs, led by Denver Burden (89 total rushing yards) and Jake Burden (83), picked up 165 rushing yards on 28 second-half carries.

“I thought we handled (their receivers) pretty well, but the run hurt us,” Forest Park coach Terry Wagner said. “The run hurt us all year up the middle.”

South Spencer found the answer midway through the third quarter when Denver Burden found a seam from 12 yards out to cap a breezy four-play, 34-yard scoring drive. He found the end zone again with 4:26 left in the game on a 29-yard charge up the gut.

Forest Park stayed alive, forcing punts and nearly intercepting a pass on a fake punt to start the fourth quarter, but fell victim to the bullying South Spencer front that tired out the offense and knocked junior receiver Lance Buechler out of the game late with an apparent concussion.

The absence of three-way standout Ben Braunecker, who was questionable this week following an ankle sprain two weeks ago, negatively affected Forest Park. Braunecker had accounted for nearly one-third of Forest Park’s scoring, and the senior receiver was responsible for more than half the team’s receiving yards. Without him, the Rangers compiled just 162 total yards and five first downs Friday.

“When Braunecker’s out, you miss him,” Wagner said. “He’s an offensive threat, a defensive threat, a special teams threat. He’s a big part of the team. The kids are having a hard time without him emotionally. (But) I think tonight they came back and played well without him.”

“It’s tough,” Leonard added. “I feel bad that he wasn’t out there with us, not just what he brings to our team but also just as a friend, him not being able to experience that with us. It’s tough to feel.”

Braunecker was in full uniform but only so he could participate in the coin toss, per IHSAA regulation. The final decision was made with Braunecker’s future in mind, as he will make an official visit to Harvard next month.

Despite the bitter ending, the Ranger seniors took with them the satisfaction of laying the groundwork for a stable young football program. It wasn’t the fourth season they had hoped for, but the enjoyment in being part of the first teams to play at Forest Park was enough to build a place for the program in their hearts and minds.

“I think we had a lot more talent and potential than what we displayed this season, but that’s the way it goes,” Leonard said. “I’ve had so much fun these four years. Our main goal was just to build this program to where it’s in a stable position and hopefully it just keeps rising to the top, because I think the talent’s here.”

Contact Joanne Norell at jnorell@dcherald.com

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