By Nate Thompson
The Crusaders saw their 26-game winning streak snapped in a stunning season-opening loss against Oakridge, casting immediate doubts about whether the two-time defending Division 8 state champions could do it a third time.
Then the following week their game at Muskegon Heights was cancelled at the last minute due to security concerns. Three painful weeks of the season passed before the Crusaders gained a victory.
MCC (6-2 overall) rolled to another league championship in the Lakes 8 Conference, riding another strong offense that scored over 34 points in four of five league battles.
But another non-conference setback, to state power Detroit Country Day in Week 8, again proved that the Crusaders’ clear path back to the Division 8 state finals at Ford Field in Detroit is anything but a given.
Still, the feeling remains in the Division 8 field that if a new champion is to emerge, they’ll have to dethrone the current king of the mountain. For instance, one prominent Detroit newspaper has picked the Crusaders to make the finals again, but lose this time.
The first opponent in the playoff fight for a third straight title is Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart, which travels to MCC on Friday for a 7 p.m. kickoff.
“I’ve told the kids, it’s the same thing every team is facing right now,” said MCC Coach Steve Czerwon, whose team plowed to a relatively easy 14-0 record last year. “If you don’t bring your best to the table, there’s a chance you’re going home. That’s a reality of half of the teams in the field. We’re starting with 256 and next week we’ll be down to 128. That’s the cold reality of it all.”
On the eve of the playoffs, the excitement is the same for Czerwon, but the dynamics of the Crusaders are very different compared to late October 2014.
“We were a really experienced team a year ago, with a great number of seniors playing pivotal roles,” he said. “At the start of this season, we had nine new people starting on defense. But with that, a lot of our inexperienced kids have gotten an opportunity to grow and get a lot of reps.
“We’re definitely not the same team we were in Week 1.”
A perfect example of a new face playing a prominent role this year is junior running back/defensive back LaTommy Scott.
A year ago, Scott played in the shadow of his older brother, Tommy Scott, who was named the Associated Press Division 7-8 Player of the Year and is now playing at Saginaw Valley State University.
Czerwon said LaTommy was purely a complimentary player on offense last year, getting most of his touches when contests were already decided.
Now, he’s a deciding factor in the Crusaders’ success.
Scott leads MCC with 732 yards rushing on 75 carries (at 9.8 yard per carry average). He’s also racked up 332 yards on eight kick returns (a 46.5 yard average). He leads the team with 15 touchdowns and 1,142 all-purpose yards.
“I loved playing with my brother, and I wish he was still on our team,” said Scott. “But without him here, it’s allowed me to come out and play more and try to shine.”
Czerwon said the younger Scott has a ways to go to equal the talents of his older brother, but he also said that LaTommy as a junior is pretty close to the same skill set that Tommy had at the same stage.
“Tommy had a special season last year,” Czerwon said. “It’s not fair to compare them. I think we should let LaTommy become his own player. And he’s shown great dedication in improving himself. He’s put a lot of work in the weight room and joined the track team that I coached.”
Scott said he has a vision on the player he wants to become.
“My first priority is to play harder every time I step onto the field,” he said. “I need to run harder and build up my speed. I need to continue to lift more often too and get stronger.”
The 5-7, 160-pounder said he’s been clocked as fast as 4.59 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
But the scary proposition for the Crusaders’ opposition is if they focus solely on stopping Scott, there others that can come up big.
Czerwon said he’s been pleased with the consistent progression of 6-foot-2 senior quarterback Christian Martinez, a first-year starter whose strength lies in his scrambling ability and keeping plays alive in the teeth of the defense.
Martinez has rushed for 318 yards and six touchdowns and completed 27 of 52 passes for 439 yards and nine touchdowns.
A mirror of Scott in the Crusaders’ backfield is junior Walker Christoffersen, a player small in structure but big on speed. Czerwon said Christoffersen was huge in MCC’s thrilling win over Fruitport in Week 6, including the game-winning touchdown reception in the closing minute.
“He’s able to make people miss,” Scott said of Christoffersen, who has 179 yards rushing and 228 yards receiving with six TDs, despite missing time with an injury. “He’s a threat to score any time he touches the ball.”
Czerwon said he’s also extremely comfortable with the ball in the hands of junior Logan Helton, a ground-and-pound fullback who is just as keen at creating holes with his blocking ability.
Helton 703 yards on 55 carries and 10 touchdowns.
While it’s been a fearsome foursome offensively, the bounce-back attitude of the entire squad has been key for MCC. Scott said the Crusaders haven’t dwelled on their two losses, instead, they’ve tried to learn from them.
He thinks they’ve learned enough to make a return trip to Ford Field.
“We’ve got it in us,” Czerwon said. “We just need to come out and play as hard as we can and never lose focus. Of all the guys who have moved to new (positions), we’re now comfortable. We have backups now who can step in. We’re ready to come out and play.”