Battle-tested Muskegon Catholic is ready to play for its third straight Division 8 state football title

By Steve Gunn
LocalSportsJournal.com

The Muskegon Catholic football team has had a much different experience on its way to the state finals than it did in 2014.LSJ Logo incert

Last year the Crusaders were prohibitive favorites going into the Division 8 title game against Munising, for good reason.Sport clips 2015 football sponsor logo

They came in undefeated at 13-0. They outscored their first four playoff opponents 188-21. All 13 of their games leading up to the finals turned out to be blowouts, with the Crusaders outscoring their opponents 620-91.

So nobody was surprised when MCC won 31-6 to capture its second straight state championship and 10th in school history. In fact, it was a bit of a shock when Munising grabbed an early 6-0 lead.

This year’s Crusaders, with a lot of new starters, haven’t been quite as dominant leading up to Friday’s 10 a.m. championship game at Detroit’s Ford Field against Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes.

They were rocked in their season opener against Oakridge 45-26, a loss that ended their impressive  winning streak at 26 games.

MCC #5 Christian Martinez stretches for the goal line against St. Ignace. Photo/Tim Reilly

MCC’s Christian Martinez stretches for the goal line against St. Ignace. Photo/Tim Reilly

Their Week 2 game against Muskegon Heights was cancelled at the last minute due to security concerns at the Heights stadium. That meant MCC had to wait a full two weeks to get back on the field following its opening night loss.

The Crusaders very nearly lost to Fruitport in a showdown for the Lakes 8 Conference title in Week 6. Only a dramatic touchdown in the final minute gave them a 29-26 victory.

And MCC took it on the chin in Week 8 against an always good Detroit Country Day team, 35-6. MCC handled County Day with ease a year earlier, 30-0.

The Crusaders  have outscored their playoff opponents 152-52, but much of that differential came in the first two games, a 49-7 win over Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart and a 48-13 win over Beal City.

Their last two games were much closer, with MCC rallying to beat Frankfort 22-12, then getting past St. Ignace in the semifinals, 33-20.

While the Crusaders, at 11-2, remain ranked No. 1 in the state in the Associated Press Division 8 poll, some media pundits have expressed doubts about the team.

Late last month, when playoff pairings were first announced, David Goricki of the Detroit News correctly guessed that MCC and Waterford would meet in the finals, but predicted a Waterford victory.

LaTommy Scott scores on the TD pass from Christian Martinez in the Crusaders semifinal win. Photo/Tim Reilly

LaTommy Scott scores on the TD pass from Christian Martinez in the Crusaders’ semifinal win. Photo/Tim Reilly

The Detroit Free Press’ “Son of Swami” column went so far as to predict an MCC loss in the semifinals against St. Ignace, with the comment, “This MCC team is not nearly as good as the past two CC teams, which rolled to state titles, but that’s not to say these Crusaders are chopped liver.”

While some pundits may not believe in the Crusaders,their coach certainly does.

‘I don’t think we’re underdogs,” said MCC coach Steve Czerwon. “I don’t know why any team would be favored. We’re just a good football team playing against another good football team.

“We’re a little less experienced this year. We have some guys who have been in the program a long time but haven’t necessarily played a lot before this year. We have a new group of guys contributing.

“It’s all about getting reps and experience. You don’t get that from practicing in the summer. You don’t get that in the weight room. You get that from playing in games. We had some improvements to make and it’s pretty obvious we’ve made some improvements.”

The Crusaders, gunning for their third straight state title, have proven to be resilient when pushed to the wire.

Nate Jones gets the interception late in the game to seal the MCC win. Photo/Tim Reilly

Nate Jones gets the interception late in the game to seal the MCC semifinal win. Photo/Tim Reilly

In regionals they trailed Frankfort 12-7 in the fourth quarter before exploding for a pair of touchdowns – a 42-yard run by LaTommy Scott and a 58-yard burst by Christian Martinez – to ice the victory.

Last week, after St. Ignace scored two touchdowns and pulled within 20-12 in the fourth quarter, the Crusaders stayed calm and went to work.

Martinez, a senior quarterback, led his team down the field for a 60-yard scoring drive to extend the lead. He finished the drive with an impressive 10-yard scoring run that involved shaking off at least four or five would-be tacklers.

Scott added the final touchdown on a 25-yard run that probably covered closer to 40 yards after he changed directions, broke tackles, dodged defenders and somehow found the end zone.

“It’s a resilient group,” Czerwon said. “I really think the Fruitport game (the last minute victory) did a lot for us. It showed us on the one hand that things are different than last year, but that we’re able to respond when we do face some adversity.”

Much of the credit for MCC’s staying power goes to Martinez, a first-year starter at quarterback who has proven to be at his best when the game is on the line.

He was particularly effective through the air in the semifinals, completing 6 of 9 passes for 65 crucial yards and one touchdown.

Perhaps his biggest completion came on the crucial 60-yard drive, when he connected with Mason Convertini down the sideline for a 22-yard gain on third-and-seven.

“He’s a pretty cool customer,” Czerwon said. “He doesn’t seem to get rattled. He wants the ball in those pressure situations. He’s very calm in the pocket when he throws.”

The MCC running game, which has outgained opponents by a combined 3,295 yards to 1,651, has been reliably explosive.

Scott leads the team with 1,191 yards and 18 touchdowns on 110 carries. Logan Helton has rushed for 864 yards and 11 touchdowns on 115 carries, while Walker Christoffersen has added 572 yards and two touchdowns on 78 carries.

Christoffersen also leads the team in receiving with 24 receptions for 452 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Christoffersen, who missed two games during the regular season due to injury, was a huge contributor in the semifinals, running for a game-high 192 yards, including a 44-yard touchdown, on 25 carries.

The defense has also been very strong, particularly in recent weeks, led by All-State linebacker Nate Jones (88 tackles, six interceptions), All-State defensive lineman Jacob Holt (74 tackles), Adam Benoit (67 tackles), Savion Thompson (59 tackles) and Adam Schulte (50 tackles).

Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes will bring a unique challenge for the Crusaders, who haven’t faced such a pass-happy opponent since Oakridge in Week 1.

Waterford comes in 13-0 after outscoring their opponents 542-118 this season.

The Lakers’ biggest weapon is senior quarterback Clay Serenius, who was named the Associated Press Division 7-8 Michigan Player of the Year earlier this week.

Serenius has completed an impressive 148 of 232 passes for 2,940 yards and 34 touchdowns.

The Lakers can also roll up yards on the ground, led by senior running back Chris Cartier, who has 120 carries for 1,264 yards and 20 touchdowns. Cartier has rushed for more than 100 yards in five different games, and also catches passes out of the backfield, with 23 receptions for 395 yards and seven touchdowns.

Junior running back Isaac Oliver has rushed for 641 yards.

The quarterback has some solid wideouts to throw to, including his twin brother, senior receiver Devin Senerius (64 catches for 1,288 yards and 12 touchdowns) and senior Ryan Kostick (34 catches for 590 yards and nine touchdowns).

Waterford also plays strong defense, with five shutouts in 13 games this season. They have only allowed an average of 9.7 points per game.

“I know they throw the heck out of the ball,” Czerwon said about Waterford. “Their quarterback is very good and he throws a lot to his brother. We have to slow them down. Nobody has seemed to be able to get to their quarterback this year.”

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