By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
DETROIT – Muskegon Catholic Central’s players emerged from the Ford Field tunnel Friday morning for the first time, in shirts and ties and with awe over their faces.
The Crusaders as a community are used to making this trip, with 11 MHSAA Finals appearances and eight titles. But this was their first time in a championship game since 2008, before any of these players were in high school.
“We have a bunch of pictures in our weight room of all the state champions. And we always talk at the end of each year about how we want to be the next picture on the wall,” MCC junior quarterback Nick Holt said. “Especially this group of kids, we wanted to come down here and win.”
And now they’ll be remembered forever among the school's best.
The Crusaders shut down one of the highest-scoring offenses in Michigan history and moved up to sixth on the list of most MHSAA football titles in beating Beal City 35-12 in the Division 8 Final.
Beal City finished this fall with 737 points, second-most all-time. But the top-ranked Aggies (13-1) mustered only 263 yards against an MCC defense that gave up more than 16 points only once this fall – on opening night.
Meanwhile, Crusaders senior running back Alex Lewandoski ran for 218 yards, good for 15th-most in Finals history. He scored on runs of 78, 1 and 66 yards.
The team – ranked sixth at the end of the regular season – was directed by first-year coach Steve Czerwon, a player during the early 1990s and among the many on his sideline connected with MCC’s historical success.
The backfield alone included Lewandowski, whose dad played for the Crusaders, and third-generation MCC students Tommy Scott and Blake Sanford. Holt’s dad has taught at the school for 12 years.
“It’s a lot of the same families coming through, and that’s what makes it so special here – it’ the second and third generation we’re getting of (Muskegon) Catholic kids,” Czerwon said.
“I always dreamt of playing at Ford Field,” Scott added. In ’06 coming to watch that Catholic team and that Muskegon team, and in ’08 watching both teams play. To have that experience, it’s awesome.”
Beal City was experiencing Ford Field for the second straight season and with most of its standouts from 2012’s Finals loss to Harbor Beach back for one more shot at the school’s first title since 2009.
By the end of the first quarter, the Aggies had nearly evened Lewandowski’s touchdown on his team's first offensive play of the game, just missing on an extra point to trail 7-6. MCC added a second-quarter touchdown, but didn’t break things open until scoring twice during the first eight minutes of the third quarter. That allowed the defense to take a few more risks and send a few more rushers and make Beal City’s comeback attempt much tougher – especially after the Aggies' initial strategy included long possessions to drain the clock.
“You’re trying to dig yourself out of a hole right off the bat, but it puts you in a different play-calling situation when they break off those big runs,” Beal City coach Lou Rau said. “We responded, and then we gave up another big play. That definitely changes what we do and how we do it.”
Senior Hayden Huber led Beal City with 52 yards rushing and its lone touchdown on the ground. Senior quarterback Kurt Gross did complete 8 of 16 passes, but the Aggies just couldn’t get their offense clicking.
MCC's defense had is share of big plays as well. The Crusaders had three tackles for losses, two interceptions and broke up five passes. Lewandoski had a team-high nine tackles and two of those break-ups.
“They sent a lot of guys; they were on a mission,” Gross said. “A couple of times when I was passing, I knew what they were doing. But the DBs were covering well, and they shifted over well and played their zone really good. They were really disciplined; that’s the best way I could describe them.”
Although Holt didn’t complete any of his four passes, it wasn’t needed. He ran for 123 yards and a touchdown and Scott ran for 53 yards including a 21-yard score.
MCC’s last three playoff losses had come by seven points or fewer, including once to Beal City in a 2009 Semifinal and last season to Harbor Beach by five in another semi. But a number of this year’s contributors got valuable experience during that run, no doubt preparing them to finish the job.
“I think the expectations were there because this is the same group of kids that lost, and we knew we had started some sophomores and some freshman in the Semifinals last year,” Czerwon said. “Not only did we have expectations, but the kids had expectations for themselves. That being said, we were able to take that next step.”
PHOTOS: (Top) Muskegon Catholic Central players hold up their first MHSAA championship trophy earned since 2008. (Middle) A trio of Crusaders tacklers wrap up Beal City running back Ty Rollin. (Click to see more from Terry McNamara Photography.)
DETROIT – Isaiah Marshall took a second Sunday night to think about the interception he’d just thrown that led to Belleville taking a late lead in the Division 1 Football Final.
But just a second.
When Marshall and his Southfield Arts & Technology teammates took the field down four points with 4 minutes, 47 seconds remaining at Ford Field, the interception wasn’t on his mind. Neither was the raucous Belleville crowd that had awoken on the home side of the stadium.
He wasn’t thinking about stopping a three-peat or snapping a 38-game Belleville win streak. He wasn’t thinking about the talk he’d heard during the week leading up to the game, that his team was on its way to getting blown out like so many of those previous 38 opponents.
All Marshall was focused on was doing his job.
“As soon as I threw the pick, I knew what I had to do differently,” Marshall said. “I just wasn’t thinking about that last play. As soon as I threw the pick, I just thought about it on the bench, then as soon as I came out, it wasn’t on my mind at all. I just knew I had to go down the field and score.”
Like he had all night, Marshall came through when the Warriors needed him most, leading his team on a 69-yard scoring drive, finishing the final 11 with his legs for the go-ahead score in Southfield A&T’s 36-32 victory against Belleville.
His defense finished the rest, as Dorian Freeman intercepted a pass during the final seconds, sealing the first Finals title for Southfield.
“It’s special,” A&T coach Aaron Marshall said. “It’s special for the community. It’s a long time coming. All week I’ve been getting calls from guys I’ve never met just congratulating the boys on making it. We had never even made it to the championship game, let alone won one. It’s real big for the community. I’m really proud.”
To do it, the Warriors needed to overcome the team that has dominated Division 1 for the past three seasons in Belleville (13-1). The Tigers had won the past two Division 1 Finals, and hadn’t dropped a game since Sept. 10, 2021.
They entered Sunday having outscored opponents this fall by an average of 49-7. They also featured the nation’s No. 1 recruit in the Class of 2025 in quarterback Bryce Underwood.
But Sunday, none of that mattered to Marshall and the Warriors (13-1). Well, except maybe the last part.
“Just a little bit,” Marshall said when asked if he was out to prove he was the state’s top quarterback. “I do think I’m the best player in the state. Me proving that tonight, and showing what I can do on the big stage shows that, I think.”
He finished the night completing 20 of 31 passes for 281 yards with two touchdowns, as well as two interceptions. He also rushed for 134 yards and the go-ahead score, as well as the two-point conversion that put his team up four.
“He came out there and played like I thought he was going to play,” said Belleville star linebacker and running back Jeremiah Beasley, who has committed to Michigan. “He’s a real tough player. Since we were little, he’s always been tough. He came out there and played with all his heart, and they came out on top.”
Underwood certainly had his moments, finishing 11 for 24 for 164 yards and a touchdown to go along with one interception. He also had five rushes for 39 yards.
And A&T was certainly cognizant of what Underwood could do, especially when he got the ball back with 47 seconds to play and a chance to take the lead. But by playing coverage, they didn’t allow the Tigers to push the ball down the field, and eventually pressure from senior defensive tackle Reggie Gardner forced the throw that Freeman intercepted to clinch the game.
“My coaches just told me to spy the quarterback, and whatever he did, I would go,” Freeman said. “Then it was just right in my zone.”
A&T led for most of the game, getting a pair of rushing touchdowns from Mathias Davis during the first half, the second score giving them a 12-7 lead.
After a 31-yard field goal from Belleville’s Brayden Lane made the score 12-10, Marshall engineered an 80-yard drive over the final three minutes of the second quarter to give his team a 10-point lead at the half. He accounted for 79 of the 80 yards with either his legs or his arm, finishing it off with a 13-yard TD pass to Tashi Braceful with 13 seconds remaining in the half. Braceful finished the night with 10 catches for 152 yards.
The Warriors nearly added to that halftime lead, as well, recovering a squib kick at the Belleville 43. Marshall hit Tyjuan Esper for a 38-yard gain on the next play, but he was tackled as the first-half clock expired.
Early in the third quarter, Marshall and the Warriors did stretch their lead when he threw a 19-yard TD pass to Xavi Bowman on a 4th-and-14. DaMario Quarles’ conversion run put them up 28-10 with 3:39 to play in the third quarter.
Of course, Belleville didn’t go away.
The Tigers responded immediately with a 45-yard TD pass from Underwood to Jalen Johnson. And after stopping Marshall on a 4th-and-2 run near midfield, they needed just three plays and 30 seconds to pull within three points of the lead as Beasley scored on a 15-yard run.
On the next A&T possession, Marquis Peoples put Belleville right back in business with an interception that he returned to the 35-yard line. Beasley again cashed in three plays later, with a 22-yard TD run that gave Belleville a 33-27 lead with 4:47 remaining.
Beasley finished the night with 106 yards and the two touchdowns on the ground.
“He’s a senior ball player; he did exactly what he was supposed to do,” Belleville coach Calvin Norman said of Beasley. “He came through in the clutch. When he ran the ball, he did his thing. I have nothing but love for the young man.”
Belleville cornerback Adrian Walker made one of the more remarkable plays of the weekend late in the first quarter, intercepting a Marshall pass deep in A&T territory.
Walker got both hands on the pass, deflecting it up and toward himself as he was spinning up the field. The ball went over his head and Walker reached behind his back to make the catch at the A&T 26.
Four plays later, Belleville was on the board with a 16-yard Colbey Reed touchdown run, and the Tigers led 7-6.
PHOTOS (Top) Southfield A&T quarterback Isaiah Marshall stretches for the game-winning touchdown during Sunday’s Division 1 Final. (Middle) The Warriors ended the night by raising their first championship trophy. (Below) Belleville’s Adrian Walker (2) makes a stunning behind-the-back interception. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)