By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
DETROIT – Grand Rapids West Catholic might have won its third straight Division 5 championship Saturday night with either sophomore Gaetano Vallone or junior David Fox playing every snap at quarterback.
Fox, the starter when the season began, and Vallone – who took over when Fox was lost with a shoulder injury in Week 3 – combined for 288 yards rushing and 106 passing as West Catholic held on for a third straight Finals win, 40-34, despite the heroics of Panthers senior signal-caller Antoine Burgess.
“We’re both athletic, we’re both physical and I guess Coach (Dan) Rohn says we’re playmakers, so we’re playmakers,” Vallone said. “It definitely helped because we’re both gamers, and that’s what it takes. With two of us back there … it really can spread things out and get them confused.”
The Finals appearance was West Catholic's fifth straight, but Vallone was among players who had significant impacts for the first time this fall.
Fox ran for 152 yards and three touchdowns from his “scat” quarterback position, while Vallone ran for 115 yards and threw for 84 and a score despite being limited by an ankle injury sustained during last weekend’s Semifinal win over Lansing Catholic.
Fox’s third touchdown run just 16 seconds into the second half gave West Catholic (12-2) a seemingly comfortable 21-6 lead.
But that would’ve counted River Rouge out far too early.
Burgess brought the Panthers back within seven with a 63-yard touchdown pass to senior Aaron Vinson with 3:56 left in the third quarter, then responded to Vallone’s 9-yard scoring pass with a 1-yard touchdown run 1:06 into the fourth.
The teams traded scores four more times, the last a 2-yard run by Burgess with four seconds to play. An onside kick was covered by the Falcons, denying Burgess one last chance at another deep toss to tie the score.
“I just told (my teammates) not to give up yet and play hard. It wasn’t over,” Burgess said. “Like I saw yesterday, King came back and won the (Division 2) game. I told them we could do that too. I continue to fight no matter what.”
A few more key plays figured into the final score, notably a tackle for a safety by West Catholic senior Conner Nemmers with 7:15 to play, followed by a 31-yard field goal by sophomore Liam Putz that made the Falcons’ lead 12 with 4:13 left in regulation. And while it didn’t lead to a score directly, Fox’s 22-yard pass to senior Billy Kral on a fake punt helped the Falcons drain a few more seconds off the clock – and ended up setting up the safety when Fox drilled a 53-yard punt to the River Rouge 3-yard line five plays later.
For the game, Burgess threw for 354 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 70 yards and two scores – missing the MHSAA Finals record for total yardage by only two and approaching the record of 383 passing yards set by Detroit Martin Luther King’s Armani Posey in the Division 2 Final on Friday.
But Burgess and his teammates made it a memorable night for a community that had six straight sub-.500 seasons before coach Corey Parker took over in 2009. The Panthers set a record for wins this fall in making the Finals for the first time and finishing 12-2.
“I think we’ve arrived, to a certain extent, in reference to the way my kids handled things,” said Parker, who has led his teams to a combined 40-7 record over the last four seasons. “To watch them manage this process, it tells me a lot about my guys and what we’ve developed as far as a foundation.
“Most press writers thought they were going to bail us out 50-something to zip. But my guys looked at that opportunity and said hey, let’s see how good they really are.”
Burgess completed 13 of 19 passes, with Vinson grabbing four for 162 yards, sophomore Giovanni Turner catching four for 95 and a score and senior Ashawnti Howard pulling in three for 84 yards and a touchdown. Junior Aaron Hall caught West Catholic’s lone touchdown pass, and junior Sam Neville had the team’s final points on a 3-yard run with 1:27 to play.
Fox, also a safety, led the Falcons with eight tackles, and senior lineman Carl Myers had seven. Sophomore safety Reggie Pearson had 10 for River Rouge, and senior defensive end Jamal Bonner also had seven.
West Catholic defeated three top-10 teams and a fourth that earned an honorable mention in the final statewide media poll to get back to Detroit, before downing River Rouge, another honorable mention. Not bad for a team that started 1-2, lost a starting quarterback and had another on a sore ankle the last two weeks.
“We had a small senior class, and I think a lot of people doubted this group since they came in as one of our smallest classes in history. But for them to be here four years is pretty remarkable,” Rohn said. “All along we knew we had a tough early schedule. … We just said, let’s just stick to our guns. We’ve been 1-3 and 1-4 in recent years and we’ve still been able to make it back down here. So the kids buy into the scheme, continue to work hard and believe in the coaches. Because a lot of people would quit at 1-2. Not this group, not this community.”
PHOTOS: (Top) West Catholic’s David Fox (4) and Gaetano Vallone (6) celebrate a touchdown during Saturday’s Final. (Middle) River Rouge quarterback Antoine Burgess breaks away from a tackle.
Five showdowns of undefeated teams highlight this week's Michigan high school statewide schedule as we begin our second-half buildup toward the end of the regular season.
If you're not watching in person, check out most of the matchups highlighted below, and several others, on MHSAA.tv. Check in as well with the MHSAA Scores page for all of them as they come in. (Games below are Friday unless noted.)
Bay & Thumb
Croswell-Lexington (5-0) at Almont (5-0) - Watch
Just past halfway through the Blue Water Area Conference schedule, half the teams are 3-1 or 4-0 in league play – with these the co-leaders. Croswell-Lexington hasn’t played a game closer than 19 points this fall, but did lose last year’s meeting with Almont 37-26. The Raiders, meanwhile, have won the last two weeks by seven and one point, respectively – but opened the season with three straight shutouts as the stifling defense they’ve become known for has given up only 34 points total.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Lapeer (4-1) at Grand Blanc (3-2) - Watch, Linden (4-1) at Fenton (4-1) - Watch, Birch Run (4-1) at Freeland (5-0) - Watch, Madison Heights Lamphere (4-1) at Marine City (4-1).
Westland John Glenn (5-0) at Belleville (5-0) - Watch
Belleville’s 42-3 victory over Livonia Franklin last week was the team’s 30th straight, and the Tigers now own the state’s longest active winning streak with Powers North Central’s coming to an end at 41 on the same night. Belleville’s next challenger is John Glenn, which under second-year coach Jason Mensing has as many victories this fall as the last two combined and has nearly guaranteed its first winning season since 2014. Mensing guided his former team Ottawa Lake Whiteford through several memorable moments, and this will be the Rockets’ biggest so far under his leadership.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Gibraltar Carlson (4-1) at Trenton (4-1) - Watch, Romeo (3-2) at Macomb Dakota (4-1) - Watch, Lake Orion (5-0) at Rochester Adams (3-2) - Watch, Marine City Cardinal Mooney (3-2) at Clarkston Everest Collegiate (3-2) - Watch.
Goodrich (5-0) at Corunna (5-0) - Watch
The winner of this matchup clinches a share of the Flint Metro League Stars championship, similar to last season when Goodrich won the league and Corunna was second thanks to the Martians’ 42-7 win in their Week 5 matchup. Both arguably have been even better this fall. Goodrich has handed the only losses this season to Frankenmuth and Linden, and Corunna has given up only 31 points this season and no more than 17 in a game while scoring at least 38 every time out.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Evart (4-1) at Beal City (5-0) - Watch, Grand Ledge (5-0) at DeWitt (2-2) - Watch, Fowler (5-0) at Pewamo-Westphalia (4-1) - Watch, Montrose (4-1) at New Lothrop (4-1) - Watch.
Northern Lower Peninsula
Charlevoix (4-1) at Elk Rapids (2-3)
There’s more riding here than the initial glance my indicate. Charlevoix, with a win, would clinch a share of the Northern Michigan Football Conference Leaders title – its first since 2020 and after finishing second to Boyne City both of the past two seasons. The Rayders haven’t had a game closer than 13 points since falling to Traverse City St. Francis by one in their season opener. Elk Rapids got off to a tough start but has won two straight – both in shutouts – and is looking for its first win over Charlevoix since 2018.
Southeast & Border
Jackson (4-1) at Adrian (4-1) - Watch
Jackson has a chance to set up a Week 7 winner-take-all matchup with Chelsea for the Southeastern Conference White championship – a nice jump after finishing third last season. The Vikings haven’t defeated Chelsea since 2018 but lost by a respectable 17-0 last fall. But they can’t overlook Adrian, still enjoying its best season since 2016 despite falling to Chelsea 28-18 last week. The Maples would love to hand Jackson a loss tonight and cheer for the Vikings next week with a title share possible.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Michigan Center (4-1) at Grass Lake (4-1) - Watch, Flat Rock (4-1) at Milan (3-2) - Watch, Ann Arbor Huron (3-2) at Saline (5-0) - Watch, Hudson (5-0) at Blissfield (3-2) - Watch.
Parma Western (5-0) at Battle Creek Harper Creek (4-1)
We’re halfway through the Interstate 8 Athletic Conference schedule, and this has emerged as an important matchup with Parma Western tied with Hastings for first and Harper Creek only a game back after falling to the Saxons 34-6 last week. The Beavers struggled to 3-6 a year ago but already have avenged 2022 losses to Battle Creek Lakeview, Battle Creek Central and Marshall – and Western defeated them 34-0 last season before Harper Creek went 2-1 to finish the fall. Western’s defense is a notable strength again, giving up only 37 points total this season despite taking on Dearborn Divine Child and Detroit Country Day over the first two weeks.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Paw Paw (5-0) at Edwardsburg (3-2) - Watch, Constantine (4-1) at Allegan (4-1) - Watch, St. Joseph (3-2) at Portage Northern (5-0) - Watch, Muskegon Catholic Central (3-2) at Schoolcraft (4-1) - Watch.
Gladstone (4-1) at Menominee (5-0)
This is the first of three games that will tell a lot about Menominee’s season as the Maroons enter this stretch alone atop the Western Peninsula Athletic Conference Copper at 4-0 but with Gladstone, Week 7 opponent Negaunee and Week 8 opponent Kingsford all 3-1 in league play. While this is a new conference for the Maroons this season, they have plenty of history with Gladstone as both came from the Great Northern Conference – and Menominee had won three straight in the series before Gladstone’s 28-6 victory last fall. Gladstone’s lone defeat this year came Week 3 to Kingsford, 35-12.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Maple City Glen Lake (3-2) at Sault Ste. Marie (3-2) - Watch, Manistique (3-2) at Iron Mountain (5-0) - Watch, Marquette (2-2) at Escanaba (1-4) - Watch, Houghton (2-3) at Calumet (1-4) - Watch.
Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central (4-1) at East Grand Rapids (5-0)
We’ve been watching East Grand Rapids’ rejuvenation this fall with this among games circled for special attention, and Forest Hills Central’s 15-14 loss to Byron Center last week hardly lessens the intrigue. The Rangers are still among favorites statewide in Division 3, ranked No. 2, and East Grand Rapids is right behind them this week at No. 3 (while Byron Center is No. 2 in Division 2). The Ottawa-Kent Conference White title won’t be decided with this matchup, but it surely will be impacted – and the Rangers have defeated EGR all three times they’ve met since the Pioneers rejoined the division in 2020.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Allendale (5-0) at Spring Lake (4-1), Lowell (4-1) at Byron Center (5-0), Caledonia (4-1) at Hudsonville (4-1) - Watch, Zeeland East (4-1) at Muskegon (3-2).
Mendon (5-0) at Adrian Lenawee Christian (5-0) - Watch
Movement on the overall 8-player enrollment list have made this a matchup we’ll see just this once this fall, as Mendon – last year’s Division 2 runner-up – has moved to Division 1 and is ranked No. 2, while Lenawee Christian is top-ranked in Division 2 after winning Division 1 titles in 2020 and 2021 and reaching a Regional Final last year. Still, many 8-player eyes will be watching. The Cougars have given up just 32 points this season and no more than 12 in a game, and that defense should be part of the key matchup within the matchup because Mendon is scoring 52 per contest and coming off an 80-point performance.
Keep an eye on these FRIDAY Carson City-Crystal (5-0) at Coleman (4-1) - Watch, Brown City (5-0) at Mayville (5-0) - Watch, St. Ignace (5-0) at Newberry (4-1), Norway (4-1) at Ontonagon (4-1) - Watch.
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PHOTO Muskegon Catholic Central and Orchard View players reach to get a hand on the ball during their meeting this season. (Photo by Tim Reilly.)