After winning four consecutive state championships, the Muskegon Catholic Central football program has a pretty sizable target on its back as it enters the Division 8 playoffs.
The Crusaders knew they'd be getting every team's best shot moving forward, and the Decatur Raiders came into Kehren Stadium and landed a few body blows Friday in their Division 8 pre-district matchup with MCC.
Muskegon Catholic Central overcame a second-quarter momentum shift and 10 penalties to land a late-round TKO on the Raiders for a 42-20 win.
The Crusaders advance to play the winner of Mendon (9-0) and St. Joseph Lake Michigan Catholic (7-2) next weekend. If Mendon advances, the Crusaders will be hitting the road for the district final matchup with the Hornets.
The Raiders made the first splash play of the game when they returned the opening kickoff inside the Muskegon Catholic Central 40-yard line, but the Crusader defense stood tall and intercepted a floating pass toward the endzone to end the scoring threat.
On the next drive, MCC drove 90 yards and capped it off with a 3-yard touchdown run by Avery Evans-Davis to take a 7-0 lead.
The next Crusader possession wasn't nearly as time-consuming, as Dawson Steigman took a pitch from Cam Martinez and weaved through the Raiders' defense for a 48-yard touchdown for a 14-0 lead.
The Raiders got a little desperate after that and started to break out a few plays that they hadn't shown in games prior.
Facing a third-and-long conversion, quarterback Erik Mroczek connected on a 47-yard touchdown pass to his brother, Bradley Mroczek, to give the Decatur faithful some life midway through the second quarter. They would add a successful 2-point conversion to bring the score to 14-8.
The Raiders used some trickery on the ensuing kickoff, punching the ball forward for an onside kick attempt that ricocheted off a Crusader and into the welcoming arms of a Decatur player.
The Raiders would carry that momentum down the field, chewing up clock in the process, and landing them at the 1-yard line with 13 seconds left in the half.
Erik Mroczek lunged forward on fourth-and-goal and found the extra yard he needed to reach the endzone. The 2-point conversion failed, however, but the score stood at 14-14 at the end of the first half to the surprise of many.
The champs entered their corner, regained their composure and stuck to the gameplan in the second half.
The Crusader defense came out inspired in the third quarter, stopping Decatur cold on three straight run plays that netted -5 yards of offense and a three-and-out.
MCC took that momentum and a short field and scored a few plays later on a Cam Martinez 23-yard run to take a 21-14 lead.
After another successful defensive stop, the Crusaders connected on a few splash plays to get to the Raiders' 1-yard line. Martinez would score on a keeper at the goal line to give MCC a two-score advantage at 28-14.
Decatur took a few more swings in the final rounds, landing a heavy counter punch when the Mroczek twins scored on another 47-yard touchdown pass with 11 minutes left in the game. The 2-point conversion failed and the Crusaders found themselves in a fight again.
Both defenses would stand tall in the ensuing drives, giving the Crusaders the ball back midway through the fourth quarter with a chance to put the game away.
MCC would do just that, as Steigman would add a 1-yard touchdown run to cap a long drive with 4:29 left in the game.
After the Crusader defense forced the Raiders to punt, MCC looked to milk the clock and end the game with the ball at their own 13-yard line. Evans-Davis had other plans, as he broke free and reeled off a 68-yard scamper down to the Decatur 15-yard line.
Steigman would add a 10-yard touchdown run a few plays later and bring the contest to its conclusion with the Crusaders recording the 42-20 decision.
"I was real proud of the way the team came out in the second half," said MCC head coach Steve Czerwon after the game. "We drove down and scored on our first two drives of the half and made a few stops on defense, too. We just played with a lot more emotion in the second half.
"I thought our offensive line was getting a good push in the first half, but we had some drives stall out because of some phantom penalties. We had a really nice touchdown run taken off the board due to one of those calls, too. It felt like we accrued more penalty yards tonight than we had all season, so that was another obstacle that we had to overcome."
The Crusaders didn't deviate from the gameplan in the second half. They knew Decatur was going outside their comfort zone in order to stick with them, and that meant they would eventually make a critical mistake.
"We didn't change anything at halftime. In the first half, they scored once on a short field due to an onside kick that bounced their way, and they hit a few pass plays for a score, too," added Czerwon. "I thought we played solid defense tonight other than a few pass plays that got behind us a little bit.
"We knew we were in good shape, so there was no reason to panic or go away from what works for us. We did run some full-house Wing-T stuff. We hadn't done that all year, so that was good to see that we are capable of running that and being successful with it. We really did a nice job knocking them off the ball, especially on some of those second-half drives."
Czerwon displayed his full confidence in his defense midway through the fourth quarter when he decided to punt the ball at midfield instead of attempting a fourth-and-two conversion.
"We just decided to make them drive 80 yards to score on us," he said. "We had an 8-point lead at that point, and we had a lot of faith in our defense. (Nolan) Convertini had a nice punt and really pinned them deep.
"At that point in the game, they really had to press to make something happen, and we had confidence that we would be able to stop them and get the ball back."
The Crusader offense finished with 391 yards rushing on 45 carries, led by Martinez with 132 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries and Evans-Davis with 132 yards and one score on 11 carries. Steigman added 83 yards and two scores on 11 carries.
Martinez was 5-of-7 passing for 93 yards and one touchdown, with Steigman catching one pitch for 48 yards, Ryder Smith added 23 yards on two receptions and Jackson Riegler added 22 yards on two receptions.
Riley St. Armour recorded 11 tackles to lead the MCC defense, which held Decatur to 96 yards on 36 carries, while Evans-Davis added eight and Caleb Muskovin added an interception.