BY JAMES COOK
BELLAIRE — Which Rapid River team shows up will be an interesting question.
Is it the Rockets' team that lost to Cedarville 72-12 in the regular season? Or the one that beat the top-ranked Trojans 22-12 in the second week of the playoffs?
The answer probably lies somewhere in between.
Bellaire (8-3) and Rapid River (9-2) meet up in Saturday's eight-player football semifinals at Rapid River in what is the two squads' second meeting of the season.
The Eagles won 28-16 in their first matchup of the season three weeks ago, but saying the Eagles are the favorite because of that win isn't quite that simple.
Bellaire won when they knocked Rapid River star quarterback Jake Pearson out the game with an ankle injury in the second quarter.
"We made the long trip up and they were ahead 16-8," Eagles coach Ron Bindi said. "We scored on our first possession because we broke a run for about 60 yards. They came right back, and we were in a funk on defense from being on the bus and they scored. Then we drove the ball down there and turned it over and they got it back and they scored. Midway through the second quarter, we knocked (Pearson) out for a series and got the ball back and kept the ball away from them the whole rest of the second quarter and scored with no time left."
Pearson came back in the third quarter, but Bindi said he was slowed by an ankle injury.
"Looking at the film now, he's back to being the real thing," Bindi said.
Playing without Pearson against Cedarville, the Rockets lost 72-12. With him against the Trojans last week, they won 22-14.
"The game plan is pretty simple: You have to stop No. 7, their quarterback," Bindi said of Pearson. "He's a good runner and can throw the ball 50 or 60 yards in the air with no problem. They like to put him back in the shotgun formation and he runs it or he throws it. ... The key to beating these guys is to keep No. 7 under control and keep the ball away from him."
The two teams have no shortage of common opponents to judge performances.
Playing the Eight-Man Bridge Alliance, the pair have faced off with seven of the same teams. Rapid River posted a 6-1 mark in those contests, while Bellaire was 4-3.
All three teams Bellaire has lost to this season — Eben Junction, Cedarville and Rock Mid-Peninsula — Rapid River has beaten, although it took the Rockets two shots at Cedarville to get a victory.
Bindi discounts two of those early-season losses by the Eagles, who started 0-2 and are 8-1 since.
"The first two games, they were so long ago, I'm not even worried about them," Bindi said. "We weren't even a third of the way to where we are now. We were making mistakes, we weren't running the plays the right way, we had distractions. We've played 11 games, so those first two games are like a season ago to us. The last nine games are our season."
Rapid River has given up 27 or more points in six games, including a 28-16 home loss to the Eagles on Oct. 19.
The Rockets — who played in last year's first Michigan High School Athletic Association-sanctioned eight-man state championship game — also received a forfeit win from a Wisconsin school early in the season.
The Eagles are hoping to win the program's first semifinal game after notching their first regional football victory in school history last week. Last year's playoff win over Akron-Fairgrove was in pre-regionals, and in 2009 Bellaire team earned selection directly into the state finals before eight-man football was sponsored by the MHSAA.
Starting with the second half of the Rapid River game, Bellaire has given up just one late touchdown to Kingston in the last 10 quarters of play — an accomplishment in eight-man football, where games are commonly more high-scoring than 11-player football.
"We made some crucial first downs and kept the ball away from them," Bindi said of limiting the Rockets' offense this first time around.
One major difference in the Rapid River games against Cedarville was who was playing and who wasn't.
Pearson and several other Rapid River players missed the first matchup, and the Trojans played without quarterback Bobby Krackowski and star lineman Dylan Badour, who were both suspended for the playoff contest.
Pearson has completed 61.4 percent of his passes for 17 touchdowns and only four interceptions. He also leads the Rockets with 2,132 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns and was the Bridge Alliance defensive player of the year. Pearson's top receiving target, senior Robert Metter, has 32 catches for 609 yards and 15 TDs.
Bellaire counters with sophomore running back Chase Small, who has racked up 1,446 yards and 21 touchdowns this season, while quarterback Zach Smith adds another 850 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns.