Mareyohn Hrabowski has a tough act to follow after a historic season for the River Rouge football program.
All the same, Hrabowski, now a senior quarterback for coach Corey Parker, is just thankful he and his teammates will get that opportunity.
Hrabowski’s three rushing touchdowns led the Panthers to a 30-7 victory over Muskegon in the Division 3 title game last November at Ford Field. The title was the school’s first in football, and the win over the Big Reds to earn it shocked many football enthusiasts throughout the state.
“It was awesome,” Hrabowski said. “To think the year before I was playing (on the junior varsity). To make the move up, the game was faster and the energy we got throughout the season was amazing.
“Before the season we talked about a state championship. When we got to the (MHSAA) playoffs we knew we had to put the foot on the gas.
“This year, expectations are the same. We don’t want to push anything. We don’t want to make this a one-man show. That title made us hungrier.”
River Rouge weathered a rugged schedule in 2019 finishing 13-1, highlighted in part by a 16-3 victory over state power Detroit Catholic Central in Week 8. Of its five playoff wins, only one, a 14-7 victory over Chelsea, came by fewer than 23 points.
With more than half his starters returning, Parker was optimistic heading into this season. Then COVID-19 hit. Normal preparations were all but cancelled, and until schools were given the go-ahead to begin preseason practice midway through the summer it looked like this season would be cancelled or postponed. The ups and downs continued when football shut down after the first week of practice and before teams were to begin training in full pads.
Earlier this month, Governor Gretchen Whitmer relaxed restrictions that in turn opened up the opportunity to play football again, and the MHSAA Representative Council voted to allow programs to resume practice with the start of the season pushed back to Sept. 18. What we’re left with is a shortened season, six regular-season games for most teams, with the playoffs set to begin Oct. 30.
“You’re setting up dates, scrimmages, games, then you’re shut down,” Parker said. “We didn’t know what was happening. Then we had to deal with the parents and fans, and explaining to them what we would do.
“(The virus) is very scary. Some of our players live with their grandparents. Some have younger siblings at home. (If you get infected) you don’t want to bring that home to them. I have (three) young children at home. We had one player who said he was in contact with someone who had tested positive. We couldn’t let him practice with us. He said he might transfer if he couldn’t practice and I said if that’s your best option, go ahead.”
Parker’s practices are highly monitored. He has what he terms a sanitation station for the players where, when they’re finished with a drill, they wash down and are told to keep their distance.
With its classrooms empty, River Rouge has adopted a virtual classroom schedule for all students from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m. As the dean of students and athletic director, Parker’s responsibilities have changed. In addition to the virtual classroom, students have the opportunity to safely meet with teachers, face-to-face, from 2-4 p.m.
“We call it a drop-in center,” Parker said. “It’s like a Q&A. If a student has a question about the work they did (virtually), they can come in and meet with their teacher. We allow two or three students, something like that, in an area at one time.”
This is Parker’s 12th season as football coach and dean of students. In addition, four years ago he became athletic director. Since his arrival, the football program has taken off and the high school’s enrollment has more than doubled to more than 1,000 students.
In the six football seasons prior to Parker’s first (2009), the Panthers were a combined 13-41 with no playoff appearances. Before Parker arrived, over its football history, Rouge had made the playoffs four times with one playoff win.
River Rouge has made the playoffs the last 10 seasons including runs to Division 5 Regional finals in 2012 and 2014, Division 4 Semifinals in 2016 and 2017, and to a Division 5 runner-up finish at Ford Field in 2015.
Success has equated to an increase in participation. Parker had approximately 20 players in the program the first four seasons. This season he has 130 including a freshman team for the first time (River Rouge will not play a freshman schedule due to the lack of freshman teams in the area).
“When I got here, football was something they did before basketball,” Parker said. “We were successful and in 2012 our goal was to win a playoff game then a District title, and we did that. We beat Almont (44-22). That was a turning point. We kept it simple back then. We ran the ball. We’re still a single wing, but we spread it out now.
“(Defeating Muskegon) was huge. (Muskegon) is the cream of the crop. If you talk about football in Michigan, you have to talk about Muskegon. Winning a title changes everything. Our numbers are up, the most ever, and the fan base is different. We have people in their cars in the parking lot now watching practice. It puts our players under a microscope. They realize they’re representing something bigger than yourself.
“Sure there’s pressure. Pressure either bursts pipes or creates diamonds.”
The strength of this year’s team is experience on the offensive and defensive lines plus the play of Hrabowski. Many of River Rouge’s linemen are college-bound players like Jalen Johnson, Chance Moore and Tyler McMillan on the offensive side; Mark Gilbert, Pius Odjugo and Deavontae Miles on defense. Safety Armorion Smith is a playmaker. He had six sacks in the victory over Detroit Catholic Central.
Offensively the Panthers will pin their hopes on Hrabowski, who at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds can control a game with his strength and athleticism. Hrabowski answered the bell time and time again during last year’s Final. He rushed for 175 yards on 15 carries and completed half of his 12 pass attempts for 45 yards. River Rouge did not commit a turnover.
“(Hrabowski) does not believe in turning it over,” Parker said. “He’s a bigtime teammate. He’s old school. At lunch, he’s always sitting with his offensive linemen. He’s a great runner and a better passer. When he has the opportunity to run, he makes plays.”
Lurking in the back of everyone’s mind is the virus. Coaches and players know they must be constantly on their guard, adhering to protocol and using caution at all times.
“I’m an only child, so there isn’t that many I come in contact with at home,” Hrabowski said. “I have my childhood friends, but I’ve noticed I’m not around as many people as I used to. I know my limits. Coach does a great job of reminding us of social distancing and wearing masks.”
River Rouge, which plays an independent schedule, opens the season at Ecorse on Friday. East Lansing is scheduled the following week and, later, Detroit Catholic Central and Detroit Renaissance.
As the COVID crisis continues to evolve, players are expected to wear masks, not only on the sidelines but while participating as well. As difficult as this sounds, Parker said his players are ready for the challenges that await.
“(Wearing masks) is going to be uncomfortable,” he said. “But we don’t mind dealing with that discomfort for these seniors to have a chance to perform and earn a scholarship to move out of their parents’ house.”
Tom Markowski is a correspondent for the State Champs! Sports Network and previously directed its web coverage. He also covered primarily high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) River Rouge quarterback Mareyohn Hrabowski finds a path during last season's Division 3 Final against Muskegon. (Middle) Panthers coach Corey Parker and his players prepare to except their championship trophy at Ford Field.
Five showdowns of undefeated teams highlight this week's Michigan high school statewide schedule as we begin our second-half buildup toward the end of the regular season.
If you're not watching in person, check out most of the matchups highlighted below, and several others, on MHSAA.tv. Check in as well with the MHSAA Scores page for all of them as they come in. (Games below are Friday unless noted.)
Bay & Thumb
Croswell-Lexington (5-0) at Almont (5-0) - Watch
Just past halfway through the Blue Water Area Conference schedule, half the teams are 3-1 or 4-0 in league play – with these the co-leaders. Croswell-Lexington hasn’t played a game closer than 19 points this fall, but did lose last year’s meeting with Almont 37-26. The Raiders, meanwhile, have won the last two weeks by seven and one point, respectively – but opened the season with three straight shutouts as the stifling defense they’ve become known for has given up only 34 points total.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Lapeer (4-1) at Grand Blanc (3-2) - Watch, Linden (4-1) at Fenton (4-1) - Watch, Birch Run (4-1) at Freeland (5-0) - Watch, Madison Heights Lamphere (4-1) at Marine City (4-1).
Westland John Glenn (5-0) at Belleville (5-0) - Watch
Belleville’s 42-3 victory over Livonia Franklin last week was the team’s 30th straight, and the Tigers now own the state’s longest active winning streak with Powers North Central’s coming to an end at 41 on the same night. Belleville’s next challenger is John Glenn, which under second-year coach Jason Mensing has as many victories this fall as the last two combined and has nearly guaranteed its first winning season since 2014. Mensing guided his former team Ottawa Lake Whiteford through several memorable moments, and this will be the Rockets’ biggest so far under his leadership.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Gibraltar Carlson (4-1) at Trenton (4-1) - Watch, Romeo (3-2) at Macomb Dakota (4-1) - Watch, Lake Orion (5-0) at Rochester Adams (3-2) - Watch, Marine City Cardinal Mooney (3-2) at Clarkston Everest Collegiate (3-2) - Watch.
Goodrich (5-0) at Corunna (5-0) - Watch
The winner of this matchup clinches a share of the Flint Metro League Stars championship, similar to last season when Goodrich won the league and Corunna was second thanks to the Martians’ 42-7 win in their Week 5 matchup. Both arguably have been even better this fall. Goodrich has handed the only losses this season to Frankenmuth and Linden, and Corunna has given up only 31 points this season and no more than 17 in a game while scoring at least 38 every time out.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Evart (4-1) at Beal City (5-0) - Watch, Grand Ledge (5-0) at DeWitt (2-2) - Watch, Fowler (5-0) at Pewamo-Westphalia (4-1) - Watch, Montrose (4-1) at New Lothrop (4-1) - Watch.
Northern Lower Peninsula
Charlevoix (4-1) at Elk Rapids (2-3)
There’s more riding here than the initial glance my indicate. Charlevoix, with a win, would clinch a share of the Northern Michigan Football Conference Leaders title – its first since 2020 and after finishing second to Boyne City both of the past two seasons. The Rayders haven’t had a game closer than 13 points since falling to Traverse City St. Francis by one in their season opener. Elk Rapids got off to a tough start but has won two straight – both in shutouts – and is looking for its first win over Charlevoix since 2018.
Southeast & Border
Jackson (4-1) at Adrian (4-1) - Watch
Jackson has a chance to set up a Week 7 winner-take-all matchup with Chelsea for the Southeastern Conference White championship – a nice jump after finishing third last season. The Vikings haven’t defeated Chelsea since 2018 but lost by a respectable 17-0 last fall. But they can’t overlook Adrian, still enjoying its best season since 2016 despite falling to Chelsea 28-18 last week. The Maples would love to hand Jackson a loss tonight and cheer for the Vikings next week with a title share possible.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Michigan Center (4-1) at Grass Lake (4-1) - Watch, Flat Rock (4-1) at Milan (3-2) - Watch, Ann Arbor Huron (3-2) at Saline (5-0) - Watch, Hudson (5-0) at Blissfield (3-2) - Watch.
Parma Western (5-0) at Battle Creek Harper Creek (4-1)
We’re halfway through the Interstate 8 Athletic Conference schedule, and this has emerged as an important matchup with Parma Western tied with Hastings for first and Harper Creek only a game back after falling to the Saxons 34-6 last week. The Beavers struggled to 3-6 a year ago but already have avenged 2022 losses to Battle Creek Lakeview, Battle Creek Central and Marshall – and Western defeated them 34-0 last season before Harper Creek went 2-1 to finish the fall. Western’s defense is a notable strength again, giving up only 37 points total this season despite taking on Dearborn Divine Child and Detroit Country Day over the first two weeks.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Paw Paw (5-0) at Edwardsburg (3-2) - Watch, Constantine (4-1) at Allegan (4-1) - Watch, St. Joseph (3-2) at Portage Northern (5-0) - Watch, Muskegon Catholic Central (3-2) at Schoolcraft (4-1) - Watch.
Gladstone (4-1) at Menominee (5-0)
This is the first of three games that will tell a lot about Menominee’s season as the Maroons enter this stretch alone atop the Western Peninsula Athletic Conference Copper at 4-0 but with Gladstone, Week 7 opponent Negaunee and Week 8 opponent Kingsford all 3-1 in league play. While this is a new conference for the Maroons this season, they have plenty of history with Gladstone as both came from the Great Northern Conference – and Menominee had won three straight in the series before Gladstone’s 28-6 victory last fall. Gladstone’s lone defeat this year came Week 3 to Kingsford, 35-12.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Maple City Glen Lake (3-2) at Sault Ste. Marie (3-2) - Watch, Manistique (3-2) at Iron Mountain (5-0) - Watch, Marquette (2-2) at Escanaba (1-4) - Watch, Houghton (2-3) at Calumet (1-4) - Watch.
Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central (4-1) at East Grand Rapids (5-0)
We’ve been watching East Grand Rapids’ rejuvenation this fall with this among games circled for special attention, and Forest Hills Central’s 15-14 loss to Byron Center last week hardly lessens the intrigue. The Rangers are still among favorites statewide in Division 3, ranked No. 2, and East Grand Rapids is right behind them this week at No. 3 (while Byron Center is No. 2 in Division 2). The Ottawa-Kent Conference White title won’t be decided with this matchup, but it surely will be impacted – and the Rangers have defeated EGR all three times they’ve met since the Pioneers rejoined the division in 2020.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Allendale (5-0) at Spring Lake (4-1), Lowell (4-1) at Byron Center (5-0), Caledonia (4-1) at Hudsonville (4-1) - Watch, Zeeland East (4-1) at Muskegon (3-2).
Mendon (5-0) at Adrian Lenawee Christian (5-0) - Watch
Movement on the overall 8-player enrollment list have made this a matchup we’ll see just this once this fall, as Mendon – last year’s Division 2 runner-up – has moved to Division 1 and is ranked No. 2, while Lenawee Christian is top-ranked in Division 2 after winning Division 1 titles in 2020 and 2021 and reaching a Regional Final last year. Still, many 8-player eyes will be watching. The Cougars have given up just 32 points this season and no more than 12 in a game, and that defense should be part of the key matchup within the matchup because Mendon is scoring 52 per contest and coming off an 80-point performance.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Carson City-Crystal (5-0) at Coleman (4-1) - Watch, Brown City (5-0) at Mayville (5-0) - Watch, St. Ignace (5-0) at Newberry (4-1), Norway (4-1) at Ontonagon (4-1) - Watch.
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PHOTO Muskegon Catholic Central and Orchard View players reach to get a hand on the ball during their meeting this season. (Photo by Tim Reilly.)