By Steve Gunn
They had an exciting ride as the Crusaders won four playoff games, advanced to the state finals at Detroit’s Ford Field, then defeated Beal City 35-12 to earn the team’s first state championship since 2008.
That experience alone would have been a story for the five freshmen to share with their grandchildren someday.
But as it turned out, there were a lot more exciting times to come for Logan Helton, LaTommy Scott, Brock Johnson, Adam Benoit and Bobby Guidice.
The five freshmen are now seniors, and have been members of three straight state championship teams.
In their sophomore year MCC beat Munising 31-6 in the state finals. As juniors they beat Waterford Our Lady of the Lakes 7-0.
On Friday the Crusaders will try to earn their fourth state title in a row when they face Ottawa Lake Whiteford in the Division 8 championship game at 10 a.m. at Ford Field.
While Muskegon Catholic has always had a great football program, with 11 state titles since the inception of the playoff system, the current run is unprecedented.
No prior MCC teams won more than two state championships in a row, and only three other schools in Michigan have won four consecutive football titles.
East Grand Rapids won five titles in a row between 2006 and 2010. Farmington Hills Harrison also won five in a row (1997-2001) and Ithaca won four in a row (2010-13).
Meanwhile, only a tiny percentage of high school athletes get the chance to be state champions every year of their careers. The five Crusaders who have been around all four years are aware of the opportunity in front of them, and they’re fired up to complete the four-peat.
“I’m really excited,” said Scott, a 175-pound running back, linebacker and safety. “I didn’t get to bed until 4 a.m. last night. I will probably have to wait for the weekend to sleep.”
It’s not like the fourth-year varsity players were counting on bringing home state trophies every year. As far as they knew, the title they won as freshmen might have been the only one.
“We never really thought about it,” said Johnson, a 280-pound lineman. “We were young, we had just got done playing JV, we got called up, and we thought it was pretty cool. That first team had a lot of good juniors, so we figured we might win back-to-back, but we never thought about a four-peat.”
But as the seasons went by, and the trophies piled up, bigger goals started to seem possible for the Crusaders.
“it’s definitely a dream come true,” said Helton, a 166-pound running back and linebacker. “After we won the first couple, we figured it would be tough to get the third. But after we got the third we felt pretty confident that a fourth was possible.”
So far the Crusaders have made their drive for their fourth straight championship look pretty easy.
They are 13-0 on the season, and have beaten their opponents by a combined score of 577-71. Most of the Crusaders’ regular season games were blowout victories, and their four playoff contests have followed the same script.
They opened the postseason by throttling Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart 68-7. They followed that with a 42-0 victory over Beal City in the district finals, a 35-0 win over Frankfort in the regional finals, and a 35-0 beating of St. Ignace last Saturday in the Division 8 state semifinals.
Helton said the great results this year are due to a lot of hard work, dedication and focus.
“Right after the last state championship, we realized that we were losing some very good players this year, so everyone bought into going to the weight room and attending summer workouts,” Helton said. “We knew we had a big test ahead of us because we would have a target on our backs.”
Scott said the players knew there would be pressure and high expectations this year, but said everyone has remained calm and workmanlike.
“We just played Crusader football,” Scott said. “Our focus was to take one game at a time, listen to the coaches, and have no missed assignments. We stayed calm, just played our game and made big plays when we had to.”
“We don’t talk very much about how good we are,” Johnson said. “We play our game and fight to the end. This team we’re playing on Friday is undefeated. They are going to come right at us. The question is whether we can stop them.”
Ottawa Lake Whiteford, making its first state finals appearance, has an impressive resume.
The Bobcats are 13-0 and have outscored their opponents this season 585-250. They’ve put a lot of points on the board in the playoffs, beating Petersburg Summerfield 50-28, Morenci 44-21, Climax-Scotts 38-18, and Saginaw Michigan Lutheran Seminary 40-21 in last weekend’s semifinal game.
The Bobcats feature a grind-it-out, ball-control running game that produces long drives, wears down opponents and eats up the clock. They piled up 525 rushing yard in their semifinal victory last week, with three backs leading the way – Jesse Keifer with 183 yards, Logan Murphy with 145 and Conner Hoogendoorn with 141.
“They are a big team, much bigger than we are,” said MCC head coach Steve Czerwon. “They are very run-oriented. They are very happy to just keep moving the ball three or four yards every push.
“The main thing is their guys up front on the line. They really come at you and try to push you around a lot.”
Whiteford will have its hands full trying to contain an explosive MCC offense that beats opponents on the ground and through the air.
MCC’s relies heavily on its deep running game, which features Helton, Scott and Walker Christofferson, three senior backs who are capable of breaking loose for huge gains on any given play.
Scott leads the attack with 873 yards on 116 carries and eight touchdowns. Helton has 817 yards on 100 carries and 13 touchdowns, while Christoffersen has 656 yards on 70 carries and 11 touchdowns.
Talented freshman quarterback Cameron Martinez has added another dimension to the running game with 614 yards on 58 carries with 12 touchdowns.
Overall the Crusaders have outrushed their opponents 5,007-1,817 on the season.
The Crusaders can also pass very effectively when they choose to. Martinez and senior quarterback Trenton Bordeaux, who share duties under center, have completed 61 of 76 throws for 1,129 yards and 16 touchdowns.
The leading receivers are Christoffersen with 19 catches for 406 yards and six touchdowns, Ryder Smith with 11 receptions for 320 yards and four touchdowns, and Scott with nine catches for 185 yards and three touchdowns.
“We’ve completed 80 percent of our passes,” Czerwon said. “Anytime it’s over 60 percent in high school, that’s really good. Teams try to box us up in the front, but we can beat them in other ways.”
MCC’s defensive performance has been amazing this year. The undersized Crusader defense, which relies on speed much more than bulk, has only surrendered 71 points this season, and none at all in the first quarter through 13 games.
Andrew Schulte is by far the leading tackler for the Crusaders with 86. Helton and Mason Convertini each have 46 tackles, Miles Navotny has 45, Jacob Martinez and Nolan Convertini each have 41 and Cole Charlesworth has 40.
Charlesworth also has four fumble recoveries and three interceptions.
“Our starting defense has only given up 18 points this season – six against Oakridge, six against St. Ignace and six against Redford Union,” Czerwon said. “That’s something to be proud of. We have played excellent defense.”
Like the five seniors who will be playing for a fourth state title on Friday, Czerwon also has a chance to keep an incredible streak alive. If MCC wins, he will have four state championships in his first four years as head coach.
Czerwon is proud of that record, at least from a school standpoint. He played football at MCC and was part of a state championship team as a freshman. He understands and respects the tradition of excellence and wants to maintain it for the program.
But he takes a down-to-earth approach to his job and doesn’t dwell on past achievements, no matter how amazing they are.
“It’s special from that perspective,” the coach said about winning championships for the players and longtime, loyal fans. “I’ve known most of these people my whole life. But I also look at it as a job, and you always try to do the best you can do for your employer.
“I am fortunate to be coaching at Catholic. We have a lot of great kids who come from great families. But I never really get caught up in (personal records or achievements). I’m always waiting to see who the next opponent is. Five minutes after the game on Friday, I will already be thinking about next year and who’s going to play where.”
The MCC players have clearly adopted Czerwon’s workmanlike approach. As Helton said about Friday’s championship game, “We’re just going to prepare like any other game. We will just stay humble and play the way we play.”
But that doesn’t mean the kids aren’t excited about the chance to compete for another state trophy – even though it’s become an annual event.
‘It’s a dream come true,” Scott said. “Not many people get to go to state. Once you get there, playing on the Detroit Lions’ field, you realize, this is where Reggie Bush got tackled, this is where Calvin Johnson touched the goalposts.”
“Running out into that dome stadium, nothing compares to that,” Johnson said. “I could happily do that every single day.”