In the Big Northern Conference, there are no weeks off. The Rock Falls Rockets are finding that out firsthand.
After losses to Stillman Valley, Winnebago, Rockford Lutheran and Genoa-Kingston the last four weeks – all teams with winning records (15-5 combined) – defending Class 3A state champion Byron is on tap this Friday night.
“They’re in the same breath as those other great teams in this conference, and if we’re not ready to go, they’re going to take advantage of us,” Rock Falls coach Kevin Parker said. “I can’t say enough about that program, how they’ve been coached very well, have very high discipline. It’s what we aspire to do as well.”
The key for Rock Falls is mastering the basics. Fundamentals have been the focus from Day 1 this preseason, and Parker and his coaching staff have seen improvements and positives each week.
And while sometimes those can get lost in the shuffle when looking at an 0-5 record and a 205-27 scoring deficit, the Rockets remain upbeat as they start looking to build for the future and finish this season strong.
This week brings another physical, fast offense and hard-nosed, aggressive defense in Byron, which has outscored its last four opponents 152-34 since an overtime loss to Stillman Valley in its season opener.
Offensively, there’s no real secret to what the Tigers (4-1) want to do: they’re going to run it right at you, with power plays up the middle and speed to the perimeter.
“They’re good at what they do, and they’re waiting for you to break out of your discipline. If one person is not doing their job, they’ll run that next play right at it,” Parker said. “If the end comes down and he shouldn’t, they’re going to run right off the end; if there’s a gap in the middle, they’re going to hit it.”
Containing opposing offenses from getting to the outside has been a thorn in the Rockets’ side all season, but it’s something they’ve been working hard on all week in practice.
“Byron basically tells you what they’re doing, but it’s still tough to stop,” sophomore Easton Canales said. “Keeping them contained would really help, because this year, we’ve really struggled with outside contain; people get outside and it’s just a footrace to the end zone. That’s really what we need to work on and do well this week.”
On the other side of the ball, Rock Falls has found some success in spurts this season, but Parker has been preaching consistency as the key to getting the offense on track.
This week it might be even more important, as Byron’s biggest strength defensively is a quick start to each play at the line of scrimmage, allowing the Tigers to dictate what opposing offenses can do.
“The first thing have to deal with is how they explosively come off the ball. If we are not coming off the ball, they’re going to get under us and they’re going to put us on our backs,” Parker said. “So we have been working a lot on both sides of the ball on focusing that we have to come off explosive. If we ever take a step back or we don’t explode into a block with our running backs, they’re going to stop the play in its tracks.”
Not surprisingly, most of the focus this week for the Rockets has been on the offensive line, and trying to match how fast and low Byron takes off on the snap.
“Definitely stay low, and be really, really fast off the ball,” junior Richard Nichols said of the coaches’ main talking points. “We have to always stay physical and disciplined, and just get better at the smaller things that we need to work on.”
Those small things will add up eventually, and have already started showing up in the confidence of some of the Rock Falls players. Now, it’s about continuing to take the next step each week to get better, and a tough challenge like Byron can only help the Rockets do that.
“The line needs to fire off the ball quickly, because they fire off the ball very low, very fast, very strong. They’re a strong fundamental team, they shoot the gaps very well, and really we just have to try our best to keep our composure,” Canales said. “We’ve just got to keep getting better.”