By Tom Kendra

ALMA – Muskegon Catholic didn’t panic after an 0-2 start this fall, roaring all the way to Saturday’s Division 8 state semifinals.

So perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that those same Crusaders nearly pulled off one of the biggest comebacks in Michigan high school playoffs history after falling behind fired-up Harbor Beach 26-0 under brilliant sunny skies at Alma College.

Muskegon Catholic's Nick Holt (3) wraps both arms around the ball as he looks for running room against the Harbor Beach defense. Photo/Tim Reilly

Muskegon Catholic’s Nick Holt (3) wraps both arms around the ball as he looks for running room against the Harbor Beach defense. Photo/Tim Reilly

“We didn’t come out ready to play,” said MCC junior running back and free safety Alex Lewandoski, who led the Crusaders with 1,121 rushing yards this season, but was hobbled the past three games with a severely sprained ankle.“It hurts because we have come so far from the start of the season, but we just got too far behind.”

Harbor Beach (12-1), which advances to play Beal City in Friday’s Division 8 state championship game, won the game on junior quarterback Eli Kraft’s 18-yard touchdown pass to Travis Essenmacher with 5:14 remaining.

MCC had one final chance, driving to near midfield, before Nick Holt was sacked on a 4th-and-5 play by blitzing linebacker Brandon Oswald with 2:22 remaining.

The Pirates were able to make one final first down and then run out the clock in a heartbreaking finish for the Crusaders and their huge throng of fans, who made the trek to Alma hoping for the school’s 12th state finals berth and a shot at its first state championship since 2008. MCC has won eight state championships since 1980.

Many were predicting an MCC blowout win on Saturday after the way the Crusaders manhandled top-ranked Mendon in last week’s regional finals.

However, the pesky band of Pirates from the heart of “The Thumb” had other ideas.

In fact, it looked like the blowout was going in the other direction as the 5-11, 180-pound Kraft diced up MCC’s vaunted defense – first with his arm and, once the Crusaders were on their heels, with his feet.

Aaron Ginther, who caught a game-high seven passes for 164 yards and a touchdown, got things started with a 59-yard touchdown reception from Kraft on a post pattern less than 4 minutes into the game.

“We thought after watching film that when their corners were backpedaling like that, we could beat them with that pass,” said Kraft, who completed 13-of-25 passes for 215 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, as well as rushing for a game-high 84 yards.

“We have had a chip on our shoulder all season long, really since losing to Saginaw Nouvel last year.  Not many people gave us much of a chance, but we believed.”

Bruising junior fullback DeAndre Ridner then added a 1-yard scoring plunge and Nick Hessling booted field goals of 19 yards and 29 yards as the Harbor Beach lead swelled to 20-0. When Kraft raced 14 yards untouched for another score and a 26-0 lead just 40 seconds before halftime, it looked all but over.

That picture looked even more bleak when MCC standout senior quarterback Zach Campbell sprained his ankle on the next series, joining Lewandoski (and Jessie Anderson earlier in the season) as key Crusaders hobbled with ankle injuries.

Ironically, the MCC comeback started at the same time as Campbell’s injury, as Holt stepped in to spark the lethargic Crusaders.

The comeback started on the final play of the first half, when Holt hooked up with Cari Campbell on a 26-yard pass in the corner of the end zone, with the extra point by Griffin Seymour making it 26-7 at the break.

That score sparked the green-and-gold, who then added a 5-yard scoring run by Anderson and a 51-yard TD pass from Holt to fellow sophomore Tommy Scott to close to within 26-21 after three quarters – sending the crowd into an “MCC! MCC!” frenzy.

That excitement grew even further when Holt scored on a 6-yard keeper run with 8:19 remaining, as MCC came all the way back to take a 27-26 lead.

“I think this will be remembered as one of the best teams at Catholic because we did things everybody said we couldn’t do,” said Campbell, a senior standout at tight end and defensive end. “People thought we were done after the first two games. We grew up a lot this season.”

Harbor Beach spoiled the huge comeback with its final scoring drive, which was capped by the 18-yard touchdown pass to Essenmacher on the out pattern.

Muskegon Catholic 25th-year head coach Mike Holmes, who moved up this season to No. 2 in all-time Muskegon area coaching wins, hinted before the season that this might be his last as the Crusaders coach. Holmes did not address his future after Saturday’s game.

Harbor Beach held the edge in first downs (18-13), total yards (327-254) and passing yards (215-107). MCC held a 147-112 edge in rushing yards, but the Pirates lost 40 yards on a botched punt snap in the third quarter.

Anderson led with 21 carries for 67 yards.

Holt finished 3-of-6 through the air for 81 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Campbell was 3-of-8 for 26 yards.

Phil Mesker and Alex Lewandoski each made nine tackles to lead the defense. Jacob Holt had eight tackles and Lamar Jordan and Brant McCollum made six tackles apiece. Sophomore Zach Winzer had an interception.

Harbor Beach will make its second state championship game appearance, its first being a 34-0 loss to MCC in the 1991 Class C title game.

Tom Kendra is a Financial Professional at Prudential Financial. He can be reached at [email protected] or at (231) 766-1954.