In Play with Tom Markowski

River Rouge, which owns 14 boys basketball titles, shoots for its first football final appearance when it plays Ida on Saturday

Football   | Tom Markowski

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 River Rouge – Boys basketball practice at River Rouge this week will be without five of its participants.

No, there are no eligibility issues. For the first time, at this time of year (practice begins Monday), the Panthers are still playing football.

River Rouge (11-1) defeated Algonac 51-20 last Friday to capture the school’s first regional title. The Panthers will play Ida (12-0), which also won its first regional, in a Division 5 semifinal at Novi High School on Saturday at 1 p.m.

River Rouge trailed 13-12 before scoring a touchdown in the second quarter to take an 18-13 halftime lead. Senior quarterback Antoine Burgess scored four of his six touchdowns in the second half as the Panthers ran away from the Muskrats.

Corey Parker is in his seventh season as head coach at River Rouge and to say he’s turned around the program is a bit of an understatement.

River Rouge has been and will always be known as a basketball school, thanks to the legendary Lofton Greene. The Panthers won an unprecedented 12 state titles under Greene. The program won two more titles since (1998, ’99) under coaches Ben Pierce and Lamonta Stone.

River Rouge qualified for the playoffs four times winning just one playoff game before Parker arrived. The Panthers were 2-7 in Parker’s first season and have made the playoffs every year since, twice reaching a regional final (2012, ’14) before this season.

“It’s a huge step,” Parker said. “We got the gorilla off of our back. We lost to some good teams (Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard and Almont).

“I knew we had the potential coming into the season. When we came back against Riverview (a 40-34 victory in the ninth week) I knew we were cooking with hot grease.”

River Rouge has been sizzling ever since. The Panthers have scored 167 points in three playoff games and they’re doing most of that running the ball out of Parker’s single wing offense.

“We run quarterback power and quarterback sweeps,” Parker said. “Plus we have some options, some bells and whistles to keep defenses guessing. Antoine knows how to make it work with his skill set.”

Burgess (5-10, 185) played on the junior varsity as a freshman and is a three-year varsity player. That experience is invaluable, especially at this time of year.   

The defense has done its part, too. River Rouge has five shutouts this season, two in the playoffs.

“As long as they follow their keys, and listen to the coaches, they’ve been jelling,” Parker said. “We’re powerful when we execute.”

Aaron Vincent, the team’s top receiver, plays rover back on defense. With Algonac within one score in the third quarter he made the play that kept the Muskrats at bay.

“I used a lot of different packages against Algonac,” Parker said. “We had keyed on their top back but the other one was hurting us. So I told Aaron to blitz as soon as they snap it. He was coming off the edge on our left side. Their back was on their left side so when he came across, Aaron was there and he stripped him, and we got the ball and scored.”

Parker continues to build this program and the conference (Michigan Metro) the Panthers are in is weak.   He’s had to go outside the conference to schedule more competitive games against teams like Ann Arbor Huron, Romulus and Pontiac Notre Dame Prep to prepare his team.

Its possible River Rouge will become an independent soon.

The near future is what has Parker’s immediate attention. Should River Rouge defeat Ida the Panthers would travel about eight miles to play in the final at Ford Field.

“That would…it would be the most pivotal moment in these kids’ lives,” Parker said. “I’ve worked so hard to earn respect for this program. But it would mean more to the kids. It would show we are a classy program.”