By Dean Holzwath
Special for Second Half
HUDSONVILLE – When people mention Hudsonville Unity Christian, the first thing most think about is the unparalleled success the school has experienced in boys and girls soccer.
The two programs have combined to win 14 MHSAA Finals with the girls capturing a remarkable 10 from 2005-2016.
However, another sport at the Ottawa County school is beginning to make a name for itself and gain attention.
The football team collected its first Division 4 Regional title last Friday with a 36-16 victory over Lake Odessa Lakewood.
The Crusaders (10-2) will appear in their first MHSAA Semifinal on Saturday against Grand Rapids Catholic Central (11-1).
This is their Unity Christian’s eighth appearance in the postseason, and their 10 wins thus far is a school record.
“Football is getting more of a notice now,” Unity senior quarterback Mitch Dykstra said. “Soccer has always been good at Unity and always will be, but football is becoming more prominent. It’s good to see.”
Unity’s deepest run in the MHSAA tournament wasn’t necessarily expected, especially after the team dropped two of its last three games to end the regular season.
The Crusaders won a school-record six straight games to open the season, but lost to Zeeland East (12-7) in Week 7 and Ottawa-Kent Conference Green champion Byron Center (40-19) in the regular-season finale.
Unity tied for second in the conference standings.
“We played hard, and in both games we battled,” said the Crusaders’ Craig Tibbe, the only head coach the program has had since its inception in 2003.
“We did some OK things, and took a few positives from that. We played one of the better teams (Byron Center) in the area that last week, but we gave good effort and moved the ball.”
The postseason started with a 24-6 victory over Three Rivers and a trip to the District Finals, but that’s where most prognosticators thought Unity’s season would end.
The Crusaders clashed with unbeaten Benton Harbor, a team loaded with size, speed and athleticism – and a mismatch in most people’s eyes.
“We were a little nervous about the unknown,” Tibbe said. “How good are they?”
Unity pulled off perhaps one its biggest wins in school history, a 35-34 overtime thriller. The Crusaders were moving on.
“It was a great game, and they were tired when we got home, but what a fun night,” Tibbe said. “They had a lot of skilled athletes, but we hung on and walked out of there with the W. Going forward, that definitely showed them that we could play with these guys. Even though we didn’t have the speed and size, we could go in there and battle.”
Last season, Unity possessed one of its better teams. It advanced to the Regional Finals for the first time before succumbing to eventual Division 4 champion Zeeland West.
The Crusaders lost several key starters from that squad, but found capable replacements. Still, Tibbe was unsure how this season would unfold.
“This season has been very special and a lot of fun,” he said. “You just never know from year to year how it’s going to go and these kids have surprised us, but what’s not surprising is how hard they’ve played week in and week out to survive.
“We look at it as why is it this way this year and not other years? We felt like we had a couple teams in the past that were pretty solid, but we ran into eventual state champs early.”
What hasn’t been mentioned is the Crusaders’ lack of numbers and depth. Throughout the season, they’ve dressed only 22 or 23 on the varsity.
Six starters and eight in all, including Dykstra and running backs Parker Scholten, Alec Headley, Austin Shaban and Luke DeGroot, play both offense and defense.
“They’ve been thrown into the fire and forced to do that when they start in our program,” Tibbe said. “It carries over, and they learn to take a little pride in the fact that this is what we do and we try to do the best we can with it.”
Unity senior tight end/linebacker Cole DeVries said there were doubts as to whether this team could surpass last year’s win total.
“We lost our whole lines, and not a lot of people believed that we could go as far as last year,” he said. “It’s been a journey, but definitely my favorite year. It’s the farthest we’ve ever been at Unity, and we’re making history. We’re doing a lot of things that Unity hasn’t done, and it’s been a blast for me.”
Added Dykstra: “I can’t describe how amazing this season is. No one believed in us, and it has pushed us to strive for greatness and that’s what we’ve done. We’re always undersized, and other teams have more players and athletes, but we work well together and we want to work hard for each other.”
Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years and more recently served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM. Contact him at[email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Hudsonville Unity Christian players celebrate during a game this season. (Middle) The Crusaders' Alec Headley (5) finds an opening during the playoff win over Benton Harbor. (Photos by Larry Treece Jr./LTpics.com.)