DETROIT – When Negaunee senior Phil Nelson returned the opening kickoff of the second half Friday and tied the Division 6 championship game at 14, it woke something up inside Ford Field.
Unfortunately for Negaunee, that something was Timmy Kloska.
“I just saw that kick return, and it really fired me up,” the Grand Rapids West Catholic senior running back said. “Our o-line got going, the holes were opening and we just got going.”
Kloska dominated the rest of the game, rushing for 172 yards and four touchdowns during the second half, leading West Catholic to a 59-14 victory. It was the sixth Finals title for West Catholic, and first since 2017.
The Falcons’ 59 points set the record for an 11-player Final, breaking the mark set by both Flint Powers Catholic and Saginaw Nouvel in 2011.
“It’s great,” said Kloska, who finished with 241 yards rushing for the game. “Me and all my friends, and all the players on the team, we’ve worked really hard for this. This has been a dream since we were in seventh grade, watching all those state championships. It’s a great feeling because we’ve worked so hard.”
West Catholic put on an offensive display, gaining 520 yards of total offense and averaging 14.9 yards per play. That number sat at 16.8 yards per play entering the fourth quarter.
The Falcons had five touchdowns of longer than 30 yards, and three longer than 60. They were also remarkably balanced, as they gained 295 yards on the ground and 225 through the air on the arm of quarterback Bernie Varnesdeel.
“Our coaches, all week, have put us in good positions,” said junior receiver Carter Perry, who had touchdown receptions of 72 and 32 yards in the first half. “When you get put in that position, it’s almost easy to make the plays and execute them.”
It started right away, too, as Perry’s 72-yard score came on the first play from scrimmage.
“I knew right before the game he was going to be wide open,” Varnesdeel said. “We were working on that play all week at practice, and he’s been open most of the time. He was the main option right there, so I just hit him and executed.”
Despite the big-play success, West Catholic (13-1) wasn’t able to pull away from Negaunee because it barely had the ball during the first half.
Negaunee (13-1) had a 20:03-3:57 edge in time of possession, and ran 37 plays to West Catholic’s 13. But it took until the final play of the half for the Miners to get on the scoreboard. They scored on a 6-yard pass from Ty Jacobson to Nelson on 4th-and-goal to make it 14-7 at halftime. The scoring toss was set up by a 32-yard pass on a reverse flea flicker from Jacobson to Eli VanBuren on a third down near midfield.
“Our gameplan was really similar from the first half to the second half, but you have to give Negaunee a lot of credit,” West Catholic coach Landon Grove said. “They did a really good job. They slowed the game down. They ate up a lot of clock. That’s credit to them. They got us out of rhythm, and they kind of forced our hand a little bit by not letting us have the football.”
When Nelson ran the kick back to start the second half and tie the game at 14, it seemed as if Negaunee’s strategy was working perfectly.
But West Catholic’s 45 unanswered points to end the game negated all of that.
“We ran out of gas,” Negaunee coach Paul Jacobson said. “We played toe-to-toe with them for a half, Phil had a great return to start the second half. I don’t know if we woke a sleeping giant. It was a combination of that, and we kind of ran out of gas. Then they rolled that second half on us.”
The Falcons scored 31 points in the third quarter, and didn’t take up a lot of time in doing so.
Kloska had touchdown runs of 61, 16 and 3 yards, and Varnesdeel threw his third touchdown pass of the game, a 68-yarder to Andrew McAlary. Carson Beekman added a 31-yard field goal.
Those five drives lasted a total of 4:35.
The difference between the third quarter and the first half, however, was that the West Catholic defense was getting the Negaunee offense off the field.
“Kind of our M.O. this year has been third quarters,” Grove said. “Kind of coming out with our hair on fire and taking over games. That’s what we did again today. That’s a testament to our defensive staff for making those adjustments they needed to make. Then our kids buying into those adjustments and believing in the process.”
Kloska added a 13-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, while Elliot Zainea had a 26-yard touchdown run for the Falcons.
Varnesdeel was 5-of-10 passing on the night for his 225 yards and three scores. McAlary had three catches for 121 yards, and Perry had his two for 104.
Charlie DeBruyn led the West Catholic defense with 10 tackles, including 3.5 for loss, and forced a fumble.
Kai Lacar led Negaunee with 45 yards rushing, and Ty Jacobson was 7-of-12 passing for 78 yards.
“I’m just proud of these guys, the way they battled adversity,” Paul Jacobson said. “They battled a ton of different stuff this year. Just the ups and downs, they were able to stick together. We really preach a family mentality, and they stuck together through and through. I’m proud of these guys.”
PHOTOS (Top) West Catholic’s Carter Perry (13) gets upfield during his team’s Division 6 championship win. (Middle) The Falcons’ Danny Groskiewicz (24) and Joe Debski bring down a Negaunee ball carrier. (Below) West Catholic players celebrate Friday’s win. (Click for more from Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)