Pirates riding wave of confidence
Seven days before the biggest upset in Rocky River football playoff history, the Pirates, led by 23 seniors, loaded up the buses for a somber bus ride home after a loss to rival Elyria Catholic.
No longer in control of their own destiny, the Pirates would have a long night to see how everything in Division III, Region 10 played out and the waiting would run into the following day. Needing some help from a few different teams, it wasn’t until Saturday afternoon that the dream of making the playoffs for the first time since 2015 became a reality for Rocky River.
“On the bus ride home, we were all checking the Joe Eitel page and all these probability websites and stuff like that wondering,” senior quarterback Michael Finnegan said. “Obviously it sucks to lose to EC, but it’s one of those times where you have to turn around and you can’t let that game define you. The bigger game is ahead and, luckily, we just snuck in there and here we are. Week 12. But those stressful two days, it definitely tested us, but we were able to bounce back.”
Saying goodbye to the season without a playoff win wasn’t something that Rocky River was considering. Making the hour drive out to Clyde last Friday, coach Josh Wells watched his team put everything out on the field for one another to push the season forward.
Watching the clock strike zero after a game-winning interception return, Wells had no one to turn to but the kids that worked all season long for the moment and celebrated what the win would do for them and the community.
“I was just excited watching the kids, I can’t tell you what I was thinking, just seeing the reaction of our kids finally making it over the hump with so many close calls throughout the season and just to watch the reaction and them living in the moment of that win and being an eighth seed versus a one seed, it didn’t matter to them at that point,” Wells said. “We knew once we got into the playoffs, anything could happen and that’s the mentality they’ve taken and that’s the mentality we’ve taken since with an eight versus a four in Norwalk.
“We don’t think that way. Our kids know how good they can be and we were finally able to put it all together at the right time in the right game.”
A celebration that took years of being on the cusp with several promising teams coming though, the payoff on the night dates back to some close loses that only taught the Pirates how to win when it mattered most.
Despite leading for most of the game, the real relief didn’t come until the final minute of the game when junior Cristian Dean intercepted a pass inside the Rocky River red zone and gave the Pirates a go-ahead lead that on the pick-six that Wells saw his team display all the hard work and close battles payoff.
“In those close to calls, it’s hard for the kids to say, ‘Let’s learn from this and move on from it.’ So for them to not give up on the belief that our message to them and to see it come to fruition in such a big moment in a big game is so rewarding for our coaching staff,” Well said. “For them to show us that we still believe and we believed in the message, we believed and we are finally coming through, that’s a testament to our kids and they’ve worked their tails off since January.”
Waiting anxiously on the sidelines as Clyde moved the ball towards the end zone, Finnegan erupted the moment he knew his team had stunned the No. 1 seed in the region and would be moving on.
“I just couldn’t believe it honestly because right away you think about how hard you work all off season and it all comes down to one drive, specifically one play and it’s just big weight off your shoulders for us and a team that hasn’t won a playoff game in 11 years,” Finnegan said. “That weight just lifted off your shoulders is just a great moment.”
The Rocky River sideline celebrates during a Division III, Region 10 quarterfinal win over top-ranked Clyde.