By Tom Kendra
LocalSportsJournal.com

GRAND RAPIDS – The only question for some of the so-called experts was how quickly before Grand Rapids Catholic Central would get to a running clock in Friday’s regional championship game against visiting Oakridge.

Only one slight problem.

They forgot about the heart and the pride of the Oakridge boys.

Oakridge went toe-to-toe with powerhouse GRCC, which has won two straight state championships and four in the past five years, before falling 25-6 in the Division 5 regional championship game in blizzard conditions at Cougar Stadium.

The Eagles (9-3), who trailed just 7-0 at halftime and 19-6 late in the third quarter, finish their season with a share of the West Michigan Conference championship (with Whitehall and Montague) and a district championship.

GRCC (12-0) advances to face the winner of Saturday’s Kingsley at Frankenmuth game in the semifinals – the sixth-straight year the Cougars have made it at least to the semis.

The expected rout on Friday night never materialized, in large part due to strong play from the big Oakridge offensive line.

Taking advantage of the continuous snow and windy conditions, the Eagles packed into their tight T-formation throughout the game and pounded the ball behind the offensive line of ends Bryce Harris and Noah MacFadyen, tackles Ethan Josza and Derek Driscoll, guards Riley Bean and Iceton Shappee and center Gage Lowry.

Oakridge executed its game plan to perfection in the first half, chewing up the clock and holding a 92-76 edge in rushing yards behind the 1-2 halfback running punch of senior Corey Vanderputte and sophomore Trever Jones, who repeatedly hurt the Cougars on counter runs.

GRCC had the biggest play of the half, however, as senior Nolan Ziegler (6-4, 215) hauled in a 23-yard pass from John Passinault late in the first quarter to give the hosts a 7-0 halftime lead.

The game was played in constant snow that accumulated on the field, much moreso on this night than on the lakeshore. Volunteers with shovels and one in a plow truck worked before, during and at halftime to try and keep the artificial surface as clear as possible, but it still had a major impact on the game.

One of the key halftime adjustments came when GR Catholic coach Todd Kolster moved Ziegler from his wideout position, where he was not involved in the game due to the weather conditions, into the backfield. The Notre Dame commit took over in the third quarter, scoring on a 32-yard pass and a 27-yard run as the Cougars pulled away.

But even after GRCC built a 19-0 lead, the Eagles would not quit.

The only score for Oakridge came from an unlikely source, as junior Brian Elizondo picked up a squib kickoff and showed surprising vision and speed, bursting through the middle and sprinting 65 yards for a touchdown to make the score 19-6 in the third quarter.

The bigger and deeper Cougars wore down the visitors in the second half, finishing with a 386-156 edge in total yardage.

Passinault completed 7-of-10 passes for 152 yards and three touchdowns, two to Ziegler and one a 60-yard screen pass and run to Ronin Russell-Dixon.

GRCC finished with a 234-117 edge in rushing yards, led by Jack Rellinger with 19 carries for 96 yards. Ziegler had eight carries for 53 yards.

Oakridge junior quarterback Matt Danicek, son of offensive coordinator Nate Danicek, made some key throws in the difficult conditions, completing 4-of-7 passes for 39 yards.

Oakridge coach Cary Harger, who has a 96-23 record in 11 years as head coach, said he didn’t have to show underdog movies like “Rocky” or “Miracle” to get his team fired up. Instead, he just had to remind them of past Oakridge upsets over heavily-favored opponents – namely a 32-14 win over Saginaw Nouvel in the 1997 regionals in a snowstorm and a 42-28 upset over “unbeatable” Jackson Lumen Christi in the 2005 state championship game.

The Eagles won state titles in both of those seasons, along with a third championship in 2008, capping that unforgettable weekend when Muskegon County won four of the state’s eight state titles (Muskegon, Montague and Muskegon Catholic were the other winners).

The Eagles made all of their fans proud this year by controlling the ball on offense and holding the Cougars about two touchdowns below their scoring average.

Oakridge was led defensively by tackles Josza and Bean, along with the sophomore linebacker duo of Brody Jennings and Jones.

Check out photos from the action shot by Brett Farmer.