By Ron Pesch
Local Sports Journal

MUSKEGON–When they joined the old Lake Michigan Athletic Conference in 1966, Muskegon Catholic Central committed to weekly athletic battles against schools with larger enrollments. Impressively, they held their own in league competition. But prior to the arrival of the MHSAA football playoffs, the setting offered limited advantage in the annual chase for one of Michigan’s gridiron crowns.

In those days, football titles were “mythical,” usually determined by the collective opinion of sports writers and/or football coaches, polled weekly, to rank Michigan’s top teams.

Those subjective newspaper rankings were a bane to MCC in both 1970 and 1972. 

In April 1973 when the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association (MHSFCA) pitched the idea of a football postseason, sportswriter Jim DeLand, in the Benton Harbor Herald-Palladium, praised the proposal. At the time, 30 of 50 states had state playoffs.

No matter how honestly polls are conducted, they inevitably favor unbeaten teams with an easier schedule over teams with a tougher schedule, and say, one loss.  Twice in the last three years, Muskegon Catholic Central was deprived of the Class B football title by losses to powerful Class A Muskegon in the final game of the season…”

With a playoff system, a team like MCC might have “an opportunity to prove itself on the field of play” wrote DeLand, against schools of similar size.

Although beaten by Class A Grand Rapids Catholic Central, 6-0, in their ’70 season opener, week after week, MCC Coach Waldo Keating’s squad proved their ability with victories over larger schools. Dramatically ascending the polls, with just a single game remaining, the Crusaders appeared on the cusp of winning their first-ever state gridiron crown according to the weekly rankings produced by news services, the Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI).

In a surprising late-season coup,” touted the AP, MCC had slipped past Grand Rapids Northview into the No. 1 spot in Class B. “Muskegon Catholic’s tough schedule…was given by poll voters as the reason for the top rating. They said Northview, which had been atop the poll all season, has not played as impressive a list of opponents.”

Once-beaten Muskegon Catholic can make its football season perfect with one more victory,” hyped UPI, noting the Crusaders had rolled past Reeths-Puffer, 30-17, while Northview had just scraped by Wyoming Park, 14-8 in week eight.

Following the 32-16 defeat by the Big Reds at Muskegon’s Hackley Stadium, Catholic was immediately displaced. Northview, unbeaten in 18 consecutive games, returned to the top in the final polls and were named champions. MCC slipped to third in the rankings according to UPI and to fourth per AP.

In 1972, the Crusaders were now led by former Muskegon coach, Roger Chiaverini. With an unblemished 8-0 record, MCC was the state’s consensus No. 1 in Class B polls as teams prepared for their season finale. With a 15-0 loss to the Big Reds (a team that finished the year in the top 5 in Class A polls by AP and UPI), Hillsdale finished as Michigan’s Class B champ. Catholic slipped to No. 2 according to UPI but plummeted to No. 5 in the AP poll behind undefeated teams from East Grand Rapids, Fruitport and Holt.

So, there was much to rejoice come 1974, when Chiaverini’s squad finish the season with a picture-perfect 9-0 record (including a mind-blowing 50-6 romp over archrival Muskegon at historic Hackley at season’s end), and won the Class B title, according to all the state’s polls. 

Perhaps more strikingly, the team finished as the top-ranked team within Class B in what was known as the “paper playoffs.” Intended as a proof-of-concept, the computer-based ranking system identified participants for the MHSFCA-proposed postseason by rewarding victorious teams that played a stronger schedule. 

Michigan may be on the threshold of high school football playoffs,” crowed the AP, “but until that day comes, the state’s prep champions are those who finish first in the final poll of the season.”

As it turned out, three of the four champions christened by the AP prep poll, and two of UPI’s crowned squads, wouldn’t have qualified for the field of 16 teams spread across the MHSAA’s four enrollment classifications in the “paper” test.

When the MHSAA introduced a true gridiron tournament that following fall of 1975, that sealed the 1974 football title as Catholic’s one and only “mythical.” But the tradition of strenuous schedules played annually by MCC would reap postseason rewards in the years to come. 

The Crusaders first qualified for the playoffs in 1978 and have appeared in the postseason an incredible 32 times in 47 years.

Even more impressively, the Crusaders have reached the state championship game on 15 of those occasions, winning 11-player state titles (shown in bold) an amazing 12 times – twice in Class B, three times in Class C, once in Division 7, and 6 times in Division 8. (B-1980, B-1981, B-1982, C-1986, C-1990, C-1991, C-1995, D8-2000, D7-2001, D7-2006, D8-2008, D8-2013D8-2014, D8-2015, D8-2016). Only Farmington Hills Harrison, no longer in existence, tops them in playoff titles won, with 13.