For the Muskegon Catholic Central football team, the latest challenger to their Division 8 crown and the chance at a historic 5-peat was a familiar nemesis in the Mendon Hornets.
The Crusaders traveled to Mendon on Saturday for the Division 8 district championship focused on keeping their season and state championship streak alive.
Despite MCC showing plenty of passion, moxie and championship mettle, it was the Hornets who ran a little harder, tackled a little stronger and had a few bounces go their way in a 26-15 home win.
The road loss ends the Crusaders’ reign over the Division 8 field after four straight state championships and hands fifth-year head coach Steve Czerwon his first playoff defeat after reeling off 21 consecutive postseason wins to start his tenure with MCC.
The first half played out as many expected it would, with both squads exchanging scoring drives and momentum swings.
The Crusaders struck first, driving the length of the field on their first possession of the game. However, an untimely penalty negated a potential scoring play and MCC would settle for a 25-yard field goal by Caleb Muskovin to take a 3-0 lead.
Mendon upped the ante on their next drive, using smashmouth isolation runs between the tackles to march down the field. Tailback Wyatt Cool capped off the drive when he rumbled off left tackle and into the endzone for a 19-yard touchdown run to give the Hornets a 7-3 lead.
MCC would answer back on the next drive when sophomore quarterback Cam Martinez scrambled away from pressure and found sophomore tight end Nolan Convertini along the sidelines for a 20-yard touchdown reception.
The extra point would sail wide, but the Crusaders took back the momentum as the first quarter ended with a 9-7 lead for the defending state champs.
As the weather worsened, the field conditions got sloppier and sloppier and both teams struggled to find their collective footing on offense.
The Crusaders regained possession with less than a minute to play in the half and used quick-hitting pass plays and a pair of Cam Martinez scrambles to set themselves up with a scoring opportunity.
Martinez would find senior wideout Ryder Smith for a 21-yard touchdown reception with 18 seconds remaining in the half to give MCC a 15-7 lead at halftime.
The second half would be all Mendon, however, as the Hornets would score once in the third quarter to draw within a 15-13 score of the Crusaders.
On the opening play of the fourth quarter, with both fanbases holding their breath, Cool would hammer through the line of scrimmage and plunge into the endzone for a 1-yard score that sent the Mendon crowd, and plenty of car horns, off into a frenzy.
The Hornets took a 19-15 lead at that point in the game, but their relentless, hard-nosed rushing attack showed no signs of slowing down.
The tale of the game was the turnovers. The Crusaders lost two fumbles and threw two interceptions, while the Hornets fumbled the ball three times, but managed to recover their own miscues on every occasion.
The wet and sloppy field conditions limited the Crusaders’ spread offense and played right into the hands of the Wing-T rushing attack of the Hornets.
Facing a 4-point deficit with eight minutes left in the game, the Crusaders coughed up the football inside Mendon territory.
The Hornets responded by chewing off six minutes of clock and extending their lead to 26-15 when Austin Rensi dove into the endzone with two minutes left in the contest.
In a helter-skelter comeback attempt, Martinez attempted to fit a pass in a tight window, but it was intercepted by a Mendon defender — ending the Crusaders’ chances and ultimately — their reign.
Martinez finished with 113 yards rushing on 20 attempts and added 106 yards on 6-of-8 passing with two touchdowns and one interception, while Tommy Watts had 65 yards rushing on five attempts.
Ryder Smith caught five passes for 85 yards and one touchdown, while Nolan Convertini hauled in a 21-yard touchdown reception.
Convertini led the Crusader defense with 13 tackles, while Avery Evans-Davis had 12 and Martinez and Riley St. Armour each had 11 stops. Jackson Riegler recorded a second-half interception, as well.
For the Hornets, Wyatt Cool rushed for 257 yards and three touchdowns on 36 carries, while Austin Rensi added 48 yards rushing and one touchdown on 13 carries.
Mendon piled up 348 yards rushing on 62 carries, good for 5.6 yards per carry, against a Crusader defense that had only allowed two 100-yard rushers all season and had held their opponents to a 3.36 yards per carry average.
“Our two big possessions in the second half ended with two lost fumbles in their end of the field. They didn’t fumble, they drove down, they had a nice plan and conditions didn’t help us out, but that’s the way the game in Michigan is played,” said MCC head coach Steve Czerwon.
“We knew they were going to come out and sit in their T-formation and see if they could take it and stuff it down our throats and that’s exactly what they did, so hats off to them. We knew exactly what they were going to do, but they are pretty good and very efficient at that T-formation. It’s a helluva thing to be able to run well when you’re in conditions like we were in today.”
Czerwon knew Cool would be a load to deal with, but his ability to keep Mendon in favorable down-and-distance situations was paramount to the Hornets’ success in the second half.
“He’s a big strong kid. They do a nice job of blocking up front and he’s always going forward,” Czerwon said. “It seemed like it was always 2nd-and-6 and 3rd-and-2 and then first down. That’s the way you keep playing in Michigan, no doubt about it.”
As he huddled with his team, which featured 11 seniors who hadn’t lost a playoff game in their high school careers, Czerwon personally mentioned each senior and thanked the entire group for their work ethic and determination that resulted in a historic run matched by few programs in MHSAA history.
“I just thanked them for their hard work. Those kids worked extremely hard,” he said. “You’re not going to win every playoff game. That’s a reality of life and these kids worked extremely hard and they should be proud of all they’ve accomplished.”
While Saturday’s loss marks the end of the road for Muskegon Catholic Central’s title run in 2017, the Crusaders will have plenty of talented playmakers coming back in 2018 to make a run at redemption.