By Mark Lewis
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Catholic Crusaders didn’t start the season the way they wanted, opening with two narrow losses to Mona Shores and Grand Rapids Catholic Central.
But boy, did they finish the regular season hitting every right note.
The Crusaders, hosting a five-win Traverse City St. Francis squad looking for that sixth win for an automatic playoff berth, simply dominated the Gladiators, posting a 28-point second quarter en route to the 42-0 win to improve to 7-2.
How dominant were the Crusaders? Well, try these stats on for size: MCC held a 17-1 first-downs advantage, gained 285 yards to the Glads’ 39, held a 27:28 to 20:32 time-of-possession edge, and finished with a total net yards advantage of 306-9.
That’s right, the Crusaders held St. Francis to just nine net yards.
The Glads didn’t even nab their first first down until the third quarter, their only one of the night.
Needless to say, the dominating performance even surprised Catholic’s first-year coach Steve Czerwon, who had expected more nail biter than a win going away.
“I think it had something to do with the distance they traveled,” said Czerwon. “When you get up on a team early, well, the ball started rolling on them and we took advantage of that.”
While everyone knew the Crusader offense would be hard to stop, for the defense to step up the way it did had Czerwon and the rest of the coaching staff pretty excited.
“We knew this team (St. Francis) could run the ball,” said Czerwon. “They’re a big, strong team, and to hold them to their first first down into the third quarter, that’s big for us. To hold such a formidable running attack to so few yards shows me our defense is playing very well, which bodes well for us heading into the playoffs.”
“Catholic has always been a great program, and we knew that,” said a gracious St. Francis head coach Greg Vaughan. “We have a lot of respect with (former) Head Coach Larry Sellers coming from here. There’s a lot of similarities. There was a huge difference in energies (between the teams). They came to play.”
“We thought they were going to be a lot tougher than they were,” admitted MCC junior linebacker Blake Sanford. “We were told they were a power, that they were still a power.”
But the Crusaders were the ones with all the power Friday night.
It all started up front for MCC (when doesn’t it?), especially the MCC defensive line, made up of Michael Caughey, Jaeden MacPherson, Jacob Holt and Ian Tyler.
“Our defensive line just played phenomenally,” said Czerwon. “We stayed in our four-down lineman set. When those four set the tone upfront, and the other team can’t pick up a lot of yards, that’s the performance of the night, having those four inside, as far as I’m concerned.”
Vaughan and his staff believed they would be able to move the ball against the Crusader defense.
“We thought with the way we’ve been progressing the past couple of weeks,” he said, “that we’d still be able to drive on them.”
But, said Vaughan, MCC linebacker Lamar Jordan kept getting massive, critical penetration at the point of attack, routinely blowing up plays before the Glads had any hope of letting them develop.
“We couldn’t get to (Jordan),” lamented Vaughan. “If we put three guys on him, he was still making plays in the backfield. When you can’t take care of the down linemen or the interior guys on offense, you’re not going to be able to move the ball much.”
For Catholic, its ability to move the ball was without question.
MCC scored on five of its first seven possessions, picking up TD runs from senior back Adex Lewandowski of one yard (on the team’s first score), from 10 yards out (second quarter) and added a 32 yard run mid way through the third.
Junior quarterback Nick Holt scored from a yard out early in the second quarter, from 67 yards away with two minutes left in the first half, and also connected with tight end Lamar Jordan on a 25 yard TD pass with 18 seconds remaining in the second quarter.
St. Francis fumbled three times in the game, all on first down runs, and the Crusaders quickly turned the first two into scores.
“We loved that aspect of the win,” said Czerwon, of his team turning turnovers into points.
Now the Crusaders are heading to the playoffs for the 24th time in the last 36 years.
So what’s the Crusader formula for playoff success?
“The formula is playing good defense and scoring enough points,” Czerwon said plainly, but with a smile. “We’ve been fortunate to score a few points and get some breaks along the way. We have to keep doing those things, keep executing.”
For Sanford, the playoffs mean more of the same as well.
“We want to do the same,” said Sanford. “Come out strong, stop them, have tough defense, pound the ball.”
Indeed, it was Manball at its best.
Holt was the game’s leading rusher, finishing with 105 yards on nine carries and two scores, while also going 1-of-2 for 25 yards and a score. Lewandoski finished with 98 yards on 18 carries and three scores, and junior Tommy Scott added 58 yards on 15 carries.
Jordan caught the Crusader’s lone completed pass, for the 25-yard score.
Byron Bullough led the Glads with 14 yards on six carries.
Defensively, Bullough led all defenders with 11 stops, while MCC was led by Lewandoski with six tackles.
Jordan and MacPherson added five stops for Catholic, and Sanford and Jake Kimbrough added four in the victory.