BY DAN STICKRADT
ROCHESTER HILLS — At the beginning of preseason football practice, James Ward was nowhere to be found in Rochester’s training camp.
Fighting through injury that lapsed into the spring and summer months, Ward didn’t even show up until midway through the second week of camp.
The Rochester senior has slowly carved his way back into the lineup and had his biggest game of the season Friday night.
Ward finished with 149 yards on a workhorse 27 carries to aid Rochester’s 24-15 OAA Red Division victory over the Red Hawks.
“I was slowly coming back from an injury,” smiled Ward. “But I am back now. I haven’t hit my full stride just yet. I just want to help us reach the playoffs.”
Simply put, Rochester finishes up with rivalry road games against Rochester Stoney Creek (Week 8) and Rochester Adams (Week 9) and needs just one win to reach the postseason for a second time in three years under coach Erik Vernon.
A pair of wins would give Rochester (5-2, 4-2) its first City Championship since 1996.
“That’s our goal,” noted Vernon. “Right now we need to get ready for Stoney Creek and rest will take of itself. We did what we had to do in order to win here tonight (against Athens).”
Rochester forced three turnovers and limited Athens to only 143 yards of total offense — 32 total yards in the first half. Shane and Shwan Shadaia each recorded a sack and finished with double digits in tackles to anchor the Falcons’ stingy defense.
“Watching Athens on film we saw they have some game-breakers. We had a game plan of trying to read what they can do and the kids came out tonight with the last home game and played tough,” said Vernon. “Our defense came through with a lot of big plays, causing fumbles and making some stops and our running game was strong.
“I thought James Ward and Lucas Disinger did a great job tonight and the line did their job,” added Vernon. “I think that James and Lucas have formed a nice 1-2 tandem running the football for us.”
After a scoreless first quarter, Rochester cashed in first when the Falcons put together a swift 59-yard drive that spanned six plays and was capped by Tyler Carten’s 5-yard run up the middle with 11:14 left in the second frame.
The Falcons forced two turnovers inside the Athens 35 in the second quarter but could not capitalize on those opportunities.
Finally, Rochester caused a third fumble of the half and Bradley Berkseth scooped up the loose ball and returned it for paydirt as time expired. Miles Dale’s second extra point gave the Falcons a 14-0 halftime lead.
Rochester fumbled the opening kickoff of the second half, and the Red Hawks’ Jake York recovered the ball on the Falcons’ 30. Five plays later, Lonnie Jaynes scored on a 1-yard plunge with 10:09 left in the quarter to cut the lead in half.
With rain affecting the game on-and-off, Rochester stuck mainly to its ground assault, chalking up 261 rushing yards. Dishinger added 95 yards on 17 carries for the Falcons, who only had 35 passing yards in the contest but outgained Athens 296-143.
Rochester was quick to answer Athens’ first touchdown, putting together another long drive. This time the Falcons ventured 80 yards in 13 plays which ended when John Doroshewitz scored on a 5-yard run around left with 3:46 left in the third period for a 21-7 advantage.
The Falcons (5-2, 4-2) put the game away when Cincinnati-bound soccer standout Miles Dale booted a 27-yard field goal with 1:42 left to play.
Athens’ Sam Haskell scored on a 5-yard and added a two-point conversion run with 7.5 second left to cap the scoring, but it was a too little, too late for the Red Hawks (1-6, 1-5).
“We had over 400 yards of total offense against both West Bloomfield and (Rochester) Stoney Creek the last two weeks, but we couldn’t make the plays when we needed to,” said Athens coach Josh Heppner. “That was the case again tonight against Rochester. We shot ourselves in the foot too many times and dug ourselves into a hole.
“Next week we have Troy and now our sole focus now is to beat Troy,” added Heppner. “We can’t dwell on the past. We know we can beat Troy.”
Jake Nelson finished 12-for-19 for 100 yards and Lucas Bezzera had four grabs for 41 receiving yards, but the Red Hawks did not have a ball carrier with over 20 yards on the night.
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