HUDSONVILLE, Mich. (WOOD) — The O-K Red Conference has developed a reputation for being one of the toughest in the state when it comes to football.
It’s a conference that boasts talented athletes, quality coaches and parity.
Those attributes have been on display this season as four teams enter the final week of the regular season with conference title aspirations.
Grandville’s upset win over Hudsonville last week created a logjam at the top of the standings. The Bulldogs and Eagles join Rockford and East Kentwood with identical 3-1 conference records.
Two of those teams will clinch a share of the conference crown Friday night as Rockford (5-3) hosts Hudsonville (6-2) and Grandville (5-3) travels to East Kentwood (6-2).
“This is a big deal,” Hudsonville coach Dave Lidgard said. “We haven’t won a league title here in a while, and these guys have worked hard this season. It would be a huge deal for these guys to get a piece of that title.”
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While the Eagles and defending champion East Kentwood have already locked up postseason berths, Grandville and Rockford still need one more win to automatically qualify. Those two schools could still make the playoffs even with losses depending on points.
Grandville coach Eric Steigel doesn’t want to rest on the hope that his team gets in.
“We feel we have to win to get into the postseason,” said Steigel, whose team has lost the past five meetings to East Kentwood. “We’re playing a good team and that’s our motivation. We have to prepare well if we want to extend our season.
“We have a chance at the end of the season to win a league title in one of the best leagues in the state, so we have to play as well as we can to win and keep the season going.”
Steigel said four teams battling for conference bragging rights says a lot about the conference’s balance.
“It’s a crazy thing, but I think it speaks to the depth and talent of our league,” he said. “Even the teams not competing (for a league title) are tough teams.”
Hudsonville is trying to recover from a disappointing 38-13 loss to the Bulldogs last week. The Eagles struggled on both sides of the ball.
“We need to execute better offensively than we did last week and we had some trouble getting off the ball,” Lidgard said. “We had two taken to us, and our guys know they have to pick it up. We can play a lot better than we did last week.”
Rockford hasn’t lost more than four regular-season games since 1994, but Hudsonville has the opportunity to break that streak.
Rockford and Hudsonville have met four times in the past two years, splitting the four meetings.
“They are fairly balanced on offense, and defensively they get after it with some guys who can tackle well in space,” Lidgard said. “They do a great job in all phases of the game so you have to be ready to play.”
Grandville opened 2-0 before suffering consecutive losses to Muskegon, East Kentwood and Rockford. The Bulldogs rallied back into contention with three wins in a row.
“We’ve been a confident team all year, even when we took some lumps against some pretty good teams,” Steigel said. “It was nice to see us play a really good game against a really good team like Hudsonville and it’s something we need to do again to beat East Kentwood. We’re going to need great performances on offense and defense to win the game this week.”
ST. JOSEPH (7-1) AT PORTAGE CENTRAL (8-0)
Kickoff: 7 p.m.
Outlook: The Portage Central Mustangs have the opportunity to clinch the outright SMAC West title with a victory while also cementing their second perfect regular season in the last three years.
The Mustangs have been explosive on offense and stingy on defense. They are averaging more than 54 points per game the last four weeks and have held six of their eight opponents to seven points or less, including three shutouts.
Portage Central’s Brandon Sturgeon and Theo Kizer combine their talents to form a dangerous tandem in the backfield.
St. Joseph, whose only loss came against Stevensville Lakeshore, can spoil the Mustangs’ unbeaten regular season and clinch a share of the division crown.
Junior defensive end/linebacker Corey Malone-Hatcher is the catalyst of a tough Bears’ defense, while St. Joseph’s running game racked up 332 yards on 57 carries in a 45-21 win over Battle Creek Lakeview last week.
Portage Central has won the last three meetings between the two playoff-bound schools.