BY JAMES COOK
TRAVERSE CITY — The measuring stick is there.
Now it's time for Traverse City West to see how it stacks up.
The Titans will travel to face perennial football powerhouse Rockford in the first round of the Division 1 playoffs tonight.
TC West receiver and defensive back Dustin Tucker has previously seen Rockford in playoff action three times, going to see his older brother play there twice and going along on the Titans' 2010 postseason trip. West lost all three, but the memories stick with Tucker.
"You know there's going to be 4,000 to 5,000 Rockford fans there, but it comes down to inside the lines," he said. "If we keep a level head and keep everything on the field and take the crowd out of it, we've got a shot. We have to not get wrapped up in the scenery, because they have a really nice facility and they get hyped for the playoffs every year."
The Titans (6-3) have faced the Rams (7-2) five times — all in the playoffs — and lost each time. In three of those five years, Rockford went on to win the state title.
"One thing we always say is if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best," said West quarterback Donny Cizek, who broke every major school passing record this season. "You can't argue with what Rockford has done year in, year out. It's always something to measure where we're at. If we ever want to consider ourselves to be an elite team, we have to prove it against some of the best."
While the Titans 0-5 mark against Rockford could deem the Rams a nemesis, West coach Tim Wooer said that's not quite the case.
"They're a nemesis with everybody," Wooer said. "When you have a really good program like they do, it's just the draw, the district you're in. You're not going to change that.
"One thing that's positive is that our kids are excited. Early on while I was here, I thought there was an aura about Rockford. And there is. I'm not trying to take anything away from them. But I don't think our kids are intimidated. Whether or not we're as good as they are, we'll find out. But our kids and our coaching staff are simply excited to go down there and measure where we're at."
And to that point, Wooer said the Titans need to play a near-perfect game to come back from the Grand Rapids suburb with the school's first playoff victory since 2004.
"If you want to make your mark in the state of Michigan, it's not going to be by beating (TC) Central or Ogemaw Heights or even Grand Ledge," Wooer said. "Everybody knows who Rockford is. From that standpoint, it's just a great opportunity for us to put West on the map if we can go down there and play the game of our life."
Quarterback Kyle Short missed the Rams' first four games, two of which were losses. Wide receiver Austin McKellar filled in at QB and had 107 rushing yards in a 22-0 Week Two win over Holt.
Since then, Rockford has been racking up consecutive wins, going 5-0 in the Old Kent-Red to claim the conference championship once again in one of the state's toughest leagues.
"In the conference they play and the schedule they have, they play the best week in and week out," Cizek said. "But Rockford traditionally is one of the best programs in the state. You have to prepare the best you can, because you know you're going to get their very best."
"They're just another team," West linebacker Derrick Diver said after last Friday's win over Adrian.
Titans defensive end Collin Bush also looked forward to the challenge of meeting Rockford, even though the matchup wasn't finalized when he talked about it last Friday.
"I hope so," he said. "That's fine with me. We'll play anybody."
Rockford's defense has given up no more than 21 points in a game this season, and opponents were able to reach double-digits just once in the last five weeks (34 total points). West has only held one opponent to single digits this season — a 42-0 shutout of Alpena in Week Four — but also has held seven of nine foes to 17 or less.
"West has never beaten Rockford," Tucker said. "We prepare for Rockford just like every other team. We watch film, break it down, see what we can do to combat their high-powered offense. They've got some good guys, but we've just got to play Titan football."
The Titans also haven't been held to less than 28 points since Week Two. Rockford's offense had generated more than 24 points on just three occasions this season — including back-to-back 49- and 45-point outbursts in the previous two weeks in wins over Hudsonville and Grand Haven.
TC West comes into the game mostly healthy. Running back Grant Balino and offensive guard Kaden Gillow are the only significant injuries Wooer listed, and guard Ben Morgenstern returned to action last week after missing a large chunk of the season.