By Andrew Johnson

NORTON SHORES – At this point, it almost feels like the Mona Shores football team has a date with destiny.

Of course everyone knew that the Sailors were going to be good again this year. They returned quite a few skilled players from last year’s squad that advanced all the way to the state finals before losing 29-16 to perennial state power Warren De La Salle.

But making it back to the finals seemed like a stretch as the 2019 season unfolded, considering all the adversity the Sailors faced, in the form of injuries, disappointing losses and several close calls in the playoffs.

Yet here they are, preparing to play in the Division 2 state championship game again on Friday at 1 p.m., against Detroit Martin Luther King, the defending Division 3 state champs who moved up a division this year.

“I’d be lying if I said yes,” said Mona Shores head coach Matt Koziak, when asked if he believed his team would get back to this point. “I thought we’d make the playoffs for sure, and I knew we had some talent. But so many things have to break right to get to this point.”

Brady Rose rushes the ball for Mona Shores. Photo/Eric Sturr

One of the things that broke last summer, but not in favor of the Sailors, was a bone underneath the pinky finger of senior All-State quarterback Caden Broersma, forcing him to miss the first two games of the season.

While the injury was a challenge for Mona Shores, it also proved to be beneficial in the long run, because it gave junior Brady Rose the chance to start at quarterback and gain some experience that would pay big dividends down the road.

“He was actually out all summer,” said Koziak about the preseason injury to Broersma. “So Brady got a ton of reps at quarterback, whether it was 7-on-7 reps or scrimmage reps.”

Those reps definitely came in handy last Saturday when Mona Shores defeated a favored Walled Lake Western squad 57-56 in a heart-stopping Division 2 semifinal shootout at Okemos High School.

That’s because Broersma, who returned in Week 3 and played most of the season, got hurt again. He battled an inflamed disk in his back last week during practice, then went down on the first offensive drive of the semifinals and was unable to return to the game.

Rose, who plays much bigger than his 5-7, 150-pound frame, was forced back under center and performed magically, rushing for 205 yards and five touchdowns and throwing for 105 yards.

He turned out to be the hero of the wild contest, scoring the touchdown that brought the Sailors within a point of Walled Lake Western with 17 seconds remaining, then running in the two-point conversion to seal the amazing victory.

“Brady is such a kid to rally around,” Koziak said. “He’s got a great heart and he’s amazing at what he does for his size.”

Now we learn that Rose will be the quarterback again in the state title game, because tests this week revealed the Broersma has a back fracture and won’t be able to play.

Detroit King would be favored anyway, and Broersma’s injury underlines the challenge that the Sailors will face. But after the way Rose played last week, and all the obstacles the Sailors have overcome this season, only a fool would count them out.

“It’s happened before,” said Koziak, reflecting back to the 2014 season, when the Sailors made it to the state finals despite star quarterback Tyree Jackson being injured in the early stages of the semifinal game. “It helps that Brady has played a few games this year. And he’s played quarterback his whole life. He’s not new to it. He could start a lot of games at quarterback for many different schools.”

Overcoming setbacks

The Sailors opened their season well enough with Rose at quarterback, posting impressive wins over East Kentwood (28-7), Bay City Central (43-6) and Reeths-Puffer (33-13).

They faced their first real test on Week 4 against state-ranked Rockford, and came up on the short end of a 34-21 final score on their home field. Suddenly the season had a blemish, and some of the Sailors’ weaknesses had been exposed.

“Rockford was a great team,” Koziak said. “As a coach you want to win every game, but with Rockford it’s kind of a measuring stick. I thought at times we outplayed them. We definitely had opportunities that we blew.”

Caden Broersma rushes the ball up the middle early in the state semifinals. Photo/Eric Sturr

Mona Shores responded to that loss with three straight victories over Kenowa Hills (42-20), Grand Rapids Union (56-0) and Jenison (35-6). At 6-1, the Sailors appeared ready for their annual showdown against crosstown rival Muskegon, the state’s top-ranked team in Division 3.

The Muskegon-Mona Shores game has been the biggest in Muskegon County in recent years and is always hyped up. The winner takes home the O-K Black Conference crown and local bragging rights, and emerges with a lot of momentum heading into the playoffs.

But this year it wasn’t much of a showdown, because Muskegon handed Mona Shores a humiliating 53-0 defeat on its own field. Suddenly the Sailors seemed deflated, and state championship hopes seemed distant at best.

“That was probably the biggest shellacking we ever took,” Koziak said. “In the past it always felt like a back-and forth-game. But we were never in that game this year, and they poured it on us.”

That kind of a loss to a rival would have caused a lot of teams to lose their confidence and fold up. But the Sailors responded by taking a good, long look at themselves and addressing their shortcomings.

“When you watch film and you see guys not blocking till the whistle or running routes short, you critique yourself,” Koziak said. “We showed the kids the film and told them that those things are the game within the game. The kids embraced it, and we had to fix those things, because you can’t just talk about it.”

Mona Shores still played a little groggy over the next two weeks. In Week 9 they only led sub-.500 Fruitport 14-7 at halftime before pulling away for a 42-20 win.

In the first round of the playoffs at Midland, the Sailors trailed 13-7 at halftime before rallying for a 20-13 win.

“We traveled three hours and it started off not going well,” Koziak said about the Midland game. “We struggled offensively, and the defense really did play well. We found a way and kept plugging and plugging.”

Against Midland Dow in the district finals, Mona Shores led 14-0 at halftime before grabbing a 35-12 victory.

Two thrillers in a row

The longer the Sailors survived, the more confidence they gained. And they would need every bit of it over the next two weeks, when they faced and overcame two very daunting challenges.

The first came in the regional finals at Portage Northern, a team they destroyed in the same round of the playoffs in 2018.

Things did not start out well for Mona Shores. The host Huskies scored touchdowns on their first three possessions, built a 20-7 lead, and had a 23-14 advantage at halftime.

Kolbe Trovinger makes a cutback and picks up more yardage. Photo/Eric Sturr

But the Sailor defense buckled down in the second half and kept Portage Northern off the scoreboard. That allowed the offense to score twice and steal a 28-23 victory, capped by a thrilling 64-yard touchdown run by senior Kolbe Trovinger in the third quarter.

“Wins are great, but the way these kids have won in the playoffs, it’s just crazy,” Koziak said after that game. “They find a way to win for each other.”

Last Saturday’s semifinal against Walled Lake Western was one for the ages, and the Sailors had to dig very deep to keep pace and find a way to beat the heavily-favored Warriors.

The high-scoring, back-and-forth affair was tied four times before the outcome was decided.

Walled Lake Western scored a touchdown on the third play of the game and led 7-0. Mona Shores scored and tied it up 7-7. Walled Lake went up 14-7, then the Sailors tied it again.

Mona Shores then built a hopeful 28-14 lead in a wild second quarter, but Walled Lake kept fighting back, and the Sailors clung to a 35-28 lead at halftime.

The Warriors tied the score in the third quarter, Mona Shores went back up 42-35, then it was tied 42-42. Walled Lake went up 48-42 in the fourth quarter, Mona Shores pulled ahead 49-48, then the Warriors scored their final touchdown with 3:51 remaining to build a 56-49 lead.

The Sailors’ final drive, starting at their own 35, will go down in school history.

Rose connected with Keondre Pierce for a 45-yard pass on the first play of the drive, then completed an 18-yarder to Trovinger on fourth and nine at the Walled Lake 19, putting the ball at the one-yard line.

Rose dove into the end zone three players later, then carried in the gutsy two-point conversion with 17 seconds left, and Mona Shores emerged with the amazing one-point win and another trip to the state finals.

“It’s a special group,” said Koziak about the magical playoff run. “We don’t have any Division 1 athletes except Caden, who has an offer from Central Michigan. But these kids just play their butts off. It’s one of those life lessons where you keep grinding and chugging like we have all year long.”

One more big hurdle

It’s likely that Mona Shores will need one more special effort to defeat Detroit King on Friday.

The Crusaders (11-2) opened with tough losses in the first two weeks of the regular season, 24-22 to Detroit Catholic Central and 41-18 in a rematch with Muskegon.

But they rebounded with 11 straight wins, including last Saturday’s convincing 60-17 victory over Birmingham Seaholm in the semifinals. The Crusaders have outscored their opponents 531-161 on the season, and have plenty of playoff experience and success to fall back on.

Tre Hatcher rushes the ball for Mona Shores. Photo/Eric Sturr

King will be playing in its fourth state championship game in the last five years, and won titles in 2015, 2016 and 2018. Last year’s championship came in a 41-25 victory over Muskegon.

“They’re used to winning,” Koziak said. “It’s not their first time here. They’re extremely talented and well coached.”

A bit part of Detroit King’s attack comes from the passing game, led by freshman quarterback Dante Moore, who has completed 122 of 187 passes for 2,240 yards and 30 touchdowns.

When the Crusaders don’t throw the ball, they’ll typically hand it off to senior Peny Boone, who has totaled 903 yards and 15 touchdowns on 94 carries.

“They’re strong and they’re fast,” said Koziak about the vaunted Crusader offense. “They have a really good running back and he’ll make things happen even when it’s clogged up. Their quarterback plays like a senior, and they can hurt you with the run or the pass.”

The Sailors will counter with plenty of weapons of their own, even with Broersma on the sidelines.

Running back Tre’shawn Hatcher has totaled 1,257 yards and 12 touchdowns on 140 carries despite missing two games in the regular season. He is 102 yards away from setting a new school single-season rushing record.

“He’s a breakaway back,” said Koziak about Hatcher. “He can run away from you and for his size, he does a great job of not going down on contact. He can make you miss.”

Rose can also run, as he demonstrated in the semifinals. On the season he has gained 378 yards, averaged 8.59 yards per carry, and has rushed for six touchdowns. Trovinger has gained 335 yards, with a 10.5 yard per carry average, and five touchdowns.

Rose will obviously have to throw the ball on Friday, and he’s had some success, completing 10 of 20 passes for 227 yards and one touchdown. He will have several talented receivers to target, including Jaylen Hopson (18 catches, 304 yards, five touchdowns), Pierce (13 catches, 228 yards, one TD) and Trovinger (13 catches, 209 yards).

A critical part of every football game is the play in the trenches, and Mona Shores is hoping its offensive line can pave a path, just like it did last Saturday when the Sailors totaled 430 yards rushing.

The line is anchored by center Bryce Sikkenga (5-10, 302 pounds), guards Derek Pennell (6-0, 298) and Cooper Wierengo (5-11, 205), and tackles Blake Bustard (6-6, 265) and Mason Klos (6-0, 256).

“This is the heaviest line we’ve ever had,” Koziak said. “We average 260 with a right guard who only weighs 205. We got some big guys up front and our coaching staff does a great job with them. They don’t get the credit they deserve for the holes they create.”

Koziak is confident in his team’s abilities, and said he has conferred with the Muskegon coaching staff about Detroit King. The Big Reds have a pretty good idea of what the Sailors will face, after playing King four times in the past two seasons.

“Shane and I have talked via text message,” said Koziak about the information he gained from Muskegon head coach Shane Fairfield. “Brent White (Muskegon’s offensive coordinator) shared some ideas, too. It’s awesome because offensively we’re very similar in formation and style to Muskegon, so we kind of got an idea, and were able to ask them what was helpful or not.”