By John Vrancic
Special to the Record-Eagle
RAPID RIVER — The Bellaire Eagles weren't singing in the rain after Saturday's eight-player state semifinal football contest at Rapid River High School.
But they were certainly celebrating in the elements after hanging on for a 20-16 triumph over the host Rockets.
The victory send the Eagles (9-3) to the state finals at Greenville where they'll face Deckerville (11-1) Friday at 7 p.m.
Deckerville advanced with a 36-30 double-overtime victory over Portland St. Patrick in Saturday's other semifinal.
Rapid River (9-3) had the ball on Bellaire's 49-yard line with 5.1 seconds left to play. But junior Jake Pearson's pass to senior Robert Metter was incomplete, enabling the Eagles to escape with the win on this otherwise dark, dreary and rainy afternoon.
The Rockets gained possession with 10.5 seconds remaining and reached the Eagles' 49 when Pearson scrambled for a short run before going out of bounds to stop the clock.
Rapid River's last-gasp effort was set up after Bellaire senior quarterback Zack Smith sprinted 21 yards into the Eagles' endzone for a safety, enabling the Rockets to pull within the final four-point margin.
"With the amount of time that was left, we figured they had enough for one play and maybe take a time-out," said Bellaire coach Ron Bindi. "We told the kids we can give them two points and run the clock down. That's why we ran the ball into the endzone rather that kick it off and let it get into hands of No. 7 (Pearson). We knew we were going to do it. We practice on those kinds of things everyday. It's all part of the game and strategy."
The Eagles gained what seemed to be a comfortable 20-6 advantage with 3:21 left to play when sophomore running back Chase Small broke off left tackle for a 51-yard TD dash.
"I saw No. 7 crash in and I knew we had one guy there to block him," said Small. "I got outside and saw nothing but daylight. Even after that touchdown, we knew we had to control the football. It (the field) was sloppy all over the place. You couldn't get any traction at all. It was like a mud bowl."
Rapid River then closed within 20-14 on Pearson's two-yard pass to senior Eli Orth with 93 seconds remaining, setting the stage for a nailbiting conclusion.
"It's a 48-minute ball game and you want to give yourself an opportunity to win it in the end," said Rockets' coach Steve Ostrenga. "But you also have to finish drives earlier in the game. We were moving the ball. We also had some adversity, although not for a lack of effort. We had a couple dropped passes and turnovers. The difference is they didn't put the ball on the ground as many times as we did."
Bellaire opened the scoring on Small's 19-yard run off right tackle with 4:12 remaining in the first quarter.
The Rockets then tied the score on Pearson's four-yard run around left end early in the second frame.
Bellaire regained the lead (12-6) when Small broke through the middle on a 33-yard run with 4:31 remaining in the third frame.
The Eagles collected 225 yards in total offense, including 166 on the ground. Small finished with 112 yards rushing on 16 carries.
"Chase had a big game," said Bindi. "But in order for that to happen, your offensive line has to block. We kind of pride ourselves in being able to run the ball. We try to run the option and keep it going with three guys who can run the ball."
Smith was 1-of-4 passing, with his completion to senior Wes Villafane covering 59 yards on the first drive of the contest which reached the Rapid River four. The Rockets' defense then stiffened, forcing the Eagles to come up empty.
"We have to give Rapid River credit," said Bindi. "They shut us down. But I think the weather conditions favored us a little because they couldn't throw as much as they wanted."
Pearson rushed for 138 yards in 29 attempts. He was also 4-of-10 passing for 37.
Sophomore Lucas Bero added 88 yards rushing in 17 trips for the Rockets, who finished with 297 in total offense.
"This was similar to our regular-season meeting (a 28-16 Bellaire victory three weeks ago)," said Ostrenga. "They had some breaks go their way again today. We also have to give them credit because they took advantage of theirs. We had plan to pass and still moved the ball. Only, we had a couple unfortunate bounces."