DETROIT – To the casual observer, Grand Rapids Catholic Central’s fifth MHSAA football title in six years may seem a little ho-hum.
Don’t tell that to John Passinault. This one was special – way different than what he may have envisioned at the start of the season.
The senior quarterback connected with Notre Dame commit Nolan Ziegler on a pair of second-half touchdown passes, and the GRCC defense did the rest in a 31-7 victory over Marine City in the Division 5 Final on Saturday at Ford Field.
Joey Silveri, GRCC’s three-year starting QB, suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 4. That’s when Passinault, a 6-foot, 180-pound converted receiver, switched to the signal-caller position. Passinault picked up where Silveri left off and helped lead the Cougars to a second-straight Division 5 title, their sixth championship in the last dozen years and seventh overall.
“Well, it’s surreal. Before the season, if you would have told me this was going to happen, I would have told you you’re crazy,” said Passinault, who finished the game 15-of-28 passing for 221 yards with one interception.
“A bad thing happened to a really good kid, Joey Silveri, and that’s just the mindset of the team to step in where it’s needed. I went from wide receiver to quarterback and it’s pretty easy to do that when I have guys around me like Nolan, Ronin Russell-Dixon, Devin Fridley-Bell, Luke Kuzner, Jack Rellinger. I have all those guys around me, it’s easy to step into that role and just settle in.”
GRCC (14-0) completed its third perfect season in the last five years, but Marine City (13-1) made the Cougars work for it for the better part of three quarters Saturday.
GRCC led 10-0 in the second quarter after a 29-yard field goal by junior John Meyer and a 2-yard TD run by Rellinger, a senior. Marine City hung in there, however, and pulled within 10-7 on junior QB Jeff Heaslip’s 3-yard scoring pass to senior Charles Tigert with a little more than three minutes left in the half.
The score remained that way until the closing seconds of the third quarter. Ziegler, a 6-4, 210-pound receiver and linebacker, caught a pass over the middle from Passinault, turned the corner and raced down the sideline for a 59-yard scoring play.
That seemed to ignite the Cougars’ offense a bit.
“My team, they blocked well, it was a great pass by John,” Ziegler said. “We were just kind of playing backyard football out there honestly, and we just got things going. I got a good block from the receivers, and I just got down and got it in.”
The Passinault-to-Ziegler connection struck again four minutes later, this time on a 17-yard TD play, as the Cougars began to pull away. Ziegler finished with seven receptions for 136 yards, plus he notched a game-high 13 tackles in displaying his Power Five college football credentials.
Senior linebacker Jack Klafeta put the exclamation point on the victory for GRCC with a 34-yard scoop-and-score midway through the fourth quarter. Klafeta notched nine tackles, as did junior Jack Cook.
“Just their athleticism all over the field, their physicality up front, made things very difficult,” said Marine City coach Daryn Letson, whose team allowed no more than 14 points in a single game this season prior to Saturday.
“You know, our defense played their hearts out. I think our whole team played their hearts out,” Letson said. “You know, they have those kids and we just weren’t able to do enough offensively when we needed to.”
GRCC finished with a narrow edge in total offense, 228-215. The Mariners outrushed the Cougars, 77-7.
Heaslip was 14-of-22 passing for 138 yards. Senior Wyatt Walker led Marine City defensively with nine tackles.
This was the sixth state title in 10 seasons overall for GRCC coach Todd Kolster, who is now 112-12 at the Cougars’ helm. They also won titles under him in 2010, 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2020. GRCC’s first came in 1987.
Kolster said the Cougars made great strides from the start of this season.
“It’s a pretty surreal thing for these guys up here – just unbelievably proud of them for so much that they’ve accomplished this year,” he said. “This team probably has come as far as any football team in a season that I’ve coached.
“Just coming together, learning what it takes, getting experience, understanding each other, fighting, competing. That’s a process and we were far, far away with them at the beginning of the season. To come here and be able to get this done, the credit goes 100 percent to our seniors.”
It was an emotional farewell for Passinault. He carried on the strong QB play provided by Silveri, who is a college prospect and led the Cougars to Finals titles in 2019 and 2020.
As a passer, Passinault proved more than capable in his own right. He threw for 2,307 yards and 37 TDs this season.
“This is it. That will probably be the last time I ever play football, so it’s just crazy to think that that’s the last time I’ll play specifically with these people,” Passinault said. “ … It’s just crazy. As a kid, you just dream about this. And to have it happen, it’s just a surreal feeling – and having dreams come true, it’s crazy.”
PHOTOS (Top) Grand Rapids Catholic Central’s Will Smith (73) hoists teammate Nolan Ziegler as they celebrate during Friday’s Division 5 championship win. (Middle) A host of GRCC and Marine City players stack up to a standstill. (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)
As anticipated, the midpoint of this football regular season provided clarity to league championship races all over the state over the weekend, setting up some massive build-up as the calendar turns to October.
(Historical information below researched in part at Michigan-football.com.)
Bay & Thumb
HEADLINER Chesaning 16, Montrose 6 Chesaning (4-1) is staring down a possible first league title since 2005 after handing the Rams (4-1) and previously New Lothrop their only losses in the Mid-Michigan Activities Conference. This also was Chesaning’s first win over Montrose since they helped form the MMAC in 2018 – and now Chesaning will turn its attention to Ovid-Elsie this week and reigning champion Durand after that with that league title possibility growing. Click for more from the Flint Journal.
— Yousef Nasser (@YousefNasserTV) September 23, 2023
Watch list Saginaw Heritage 49, Lapeer 21 The Hawks (3-2) opened Saginaw Valley League Red play with losses to Grand Blanc and Davison but are still to be feared as handing this first loss of the season to Lightning (4-1) showed. Further putting that start in perspective, all five of Heritage’s opponents so far have winning records heading into Week 6.
On the move Millington 21, Standish-Sterling 20 The Cardinals (5-0) clinched a share of the Tri-Valley Conference Blue title after losing out to Standish-Sterling (2-3) a year ago. Corunna 49, Lake Fenton 17 The Cavaliers (5-0) will play Goodrich this week to decide the Flint Metro League Stars champion for the second year in a row after taking Lake Fenton (3-2) out of the title race. Almont 13, Armada 12 Almont (5-0) and Croswell-Lexington will face off this week for first in the Blue Water Area Conference after Almont came back from down 12-0 in the third quarter to get past the reigning co-champion Tigers (2-3).
HEADLINER Clinton Township Chippewa Valley 28, Macomb Dakota 21 Four teams are in the running again in the Macomb Area Conference Red, with Chippewa Valley (3-2) helping to open the race back up with its first win over Dakota since the 2019 regular season. The Cougars (4-1) drew close with a touchdown with a minute to play, but the Big Reds secured the onside kick – and now those two and Utica Eisenhower sit a game behind Romeo in the league standings. Click for more from the Macomb Daily.
Relive the exhilarating STATE CHAMPS! Gametime Live Broadcast where Chippewa Valley (@CVBigReds) triumphed over Macomb Dakota with an 28-21 victory, reclaiming the Superintendent Trophy for the first time since 2019.
— STATE CHAMPS! Michigan (@statechampsmich) September 23, 2023
Watch list Riverview 36, Flat Rock 34 The Huron League is back to a three-team race with these two and Carleton Airport after Riverview (4-1) handed Flat Rock (4-1) its lone loss. All three have played each other, so they’ll need help to break the tie at the top.
On the move Redford Union 33, Dearborn Heights Robichaud 22 Union (4-1) sits alone atop a close Western Wayne Athletic Conference race but with wins over two of three teams tied for second, plus Robichaud (3-2) as well. Warren Michigan Collegiate 44, Detroit Edison 16 In successive weeks, Michigan Collegiate (5-0) has handed lone losses this season to Romulus Summit North and now Edison to take control of the Charter School Conference Gold race. Warren De La Salle Collegiate 14, Detroit Catholic Central 7 They both trail Toledo Central Catholic in the Catholic League Central, but both will be expected to factor heavily in the playoffs even if they miss out on a league title. DCC (3-2) entered this game No. 9 in Division 1, and De La Salle (3-2) was No. 2 in Division 2.
HEADLINER Grand Ledge 21, Lansing Everett 12 With its first-string quarterback sidelined, Grand Ledge emerged from a scoreless game at halftime to remain atop the Capital Area Activities Conference Blue while moving to 5-0 overall. The Comets’ defense was especially tough, holding back an Everett offense that had reached 40 points in two of its last three games as the Vikings (3-2) entered the night the having won three in a row. Click for more from the Lansing State Journal.
— Travis (@travis_reporter) September 23, 2023
Watch list Hastings 34, Battle Creek Harper Creek 6 The Saxons (3-2) are in the mix in the Interstate 8 Athletic Conference, having picked up some serious momentum by handing Harper Creek (4-1) its lone defeat.
On the move East Lansing 35, Grand Blanc 7 East Lansing’s 0-2 start keeps gaining context as those early opponents keep winning and the Trojans (3-2) do the same against league title contenders like the Saginaw Valley League Blue’s Bobcats (3-2). Mason 35, Haslett 20 The Bulldogs (5-0) can clinch a share of the CAAC Red this week after holding off Haslett (3-2) for their closest win, with the defense coming up big late as the Vikings were driving to attempt to tie the score. Portland 52, Lansing Catholic 14 The Raiders (5-0) ran their winning streak over the rival Cougars (2-3) to two as they look to repeat as CAAC White champions – and with Week 8 against Lansing Sexton looking more and more like a potential decider.
Northern Lower Peninsula
HEADLINER Gaylord 35, Cadillac 14 The Blue Devils are only halfway through the Big North Conference schedule but may be impossible to catch. Gaylord sits atop the standings and has handed the lone league loss to the three teams in second or tied for third, including the Vikings (3-2). The Blue Devils scored 21 unanswered fourth-quarter points this time to get to 5-0 for the first time since 2003. Click for more from the Petoskey News-Review.
Watch list Traverse City West 24, Midland Dow 21 The Titans (2-3) started 0-2 and have played three games decided by a touchdown or less, including this one to keep them as one of two teams undefeated in SVL Red play.
On the move Charlevoix 29, Benzie Central 12 The Rayders (4-1) can clinch a share of the Northern Michigan Football Conference Leaders title this week after sending Benzie Central (2-3) into second place. Kingsley 44, Traverse City St. Francis 21 The Stags (4-1) had lost to the rival Gladiators (2-3) the last two seasons, including 49-12 a year ago, but this time kept pace with Ogemaw Heights atop the NMFC Legends. East Jordan 26, Maple City Glen Lake 3 Coming off a Week 4 loss, the Red Devils remain in the NMFC Legacy title hunt after a solid bounce-back against the Lakers (3-2).
Southeast & Border
HEADLINER Chelsea 28, Adrian 18 The Southeastern Conference White is looking like it will come down to Chelsea and Jackson after the Bulldogs sent Adrian (4-1) into second place. Since falling to Grand Rapids Northview in Week 1, Chelsea (4-1) has won its next four games all by double digits. Click for more from the Chelsea Sun Times News.
Watch list Dexter 55, Ann Arbor Huron 29 The Dreadnaughts (3-2) are picking up fast after an 0-2 start, with this win dropping Huron (3-2) out of a tie for first in the SEC Red. Dexter has gone over 50 points two straight weeks.
On the move Clinton 50, Blissfield 0 The Redwolves (4-1) also have won four straight after an opening loss and sit tied with Hudson for first in the Lenawee County Athletic Association, while Blissfield (3-2) fell into third. Napoleon 35, Grass Lake 26 For the second-straight week, Napoleon handed the first loss this season to a league opponent – and the Pirates now sit atop the Cascades Conference East with Michigan Center. Erie Mason 40, Petersburg Summerfield 16 Coming off three straight losses, the Eagles (2-3) were in need of a rebound – and got it by handing Summerfield (4-1) its lone defeat.
HEADLINER Dowagiac 27, Benton Harbor 26 A one-point Week 1 loss to South Haven is all that’s kept Dowagiac from a perfect start, and the Chieftains (4-1) with this win guaranteed their best finish since at least 2019. Dowagiac trailed 18-13 at halftime, then held off the Tigers (2-3) late to open the Lakeland Conference schedule on the right foot. Click for more from the Niles Daily Star.
Watch list South Haven 45, Allegan 17 The Rams (3-2) won just two games a year ago, but opened with the above-mentioned win over Dowagiac, added a second win over Delton Kellogg two weeks ago, and this time scored their season high to hand Allegan (4-1) its only loss.
On the move Kalamazoo United 30, Parchment 28 (OT) Parchment (3-2) nearly pushed this to another overtime, but the Titans (3-2) held on in another Southwestern Athletic Conference Lakeshore opener to join South Haven and Constantine among early leaders. Portage Central 35, St. Joseph 18 The Mustangs (4-1) equaled last season’s win total and kept pace atop the Southwestern Michigan Athletic Conference standings while sending the Bears (3-2) a game back. White Pigeon 24, Centreville 8 The Southwest 10 Conference race may come down to the Chiefs (5-0) and Cassopolis in Week 8, although Centreville (2-3) can still be part of the mix if it gets past Cassopolis this week.
HEADLINER Marquette 28, Sault Ste. Marie 7 These two hadn’t met since 2020 but moved together to the Big North Conference for football this fall. Marquette didn’t have an opponent for Week 4 and came back off the break with a big-time defensive effort to even its record at 2-2 and deal the Blue Devils (3-2) their second defeat. Click for more from the Marquette Mining Journal.
Watch list Ishpeming 46, Bark River-Harris 8 The Hematites (2-3) had lost two straight to Bark River-Harris (2-3), but got a needed rebound after defeats the previous two weeks. They could be in for more success with their last next four opponents a combined 2-17.
On the move Manistique 44, L’Anse 0 The Emeralds (3-2) have posted three straight shutouts and sit one more win from what would be their best finish since 2012. Menominee 56, Houghton 0 Make that four shutouts in five games for the Maroons as they prepare to take on the rest of the contenders in the Western Peninsula Athletic Conference Copper over the next three weeks. Kingsford 41, Calumet 0 Coming off their lone loss, the Flivvers (4-1) posted their third shutout of the season and remain in the Copper mix.
HEADLINER Byron Center 15, Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central 14 The Ottawa-Kent Conference White continues to look like one of the most competitive leagues in the state this fall, and Byron Center (5-0) remains tied for first with East Grand Rapids thanks to a two-point conversion after a last-minute go-ahead score. FHC (4-1) entered the game ranked No. 1 in Division 3, and Byron Center was No. 4 in Division 2.
Byron Center sneaks past FHC with late TD and 2-point conversion
"I'm so proud of our guys right now," @BlakeOttow23 said, "it's unbelievable."
— FOX 17 Blitz (@FOX17Blitz) September 23, 2023
Watch list Grandville 44, Hudsonville 37 These teams traded leads all game, but Grandville (4-1) scored last to earn a spot atop the O-K Red, tied with Rockford. The Bulldogs have defeated the Eagles (4-1) in four straight.
On the move East Grand Rapids 14, Grand Rapids Northview 10 As noted above, EGR (5-0) kept pace atop the O-K White – thanks to a late go-ahead score that sent Northview to 3-2. Zeeland West 36, Zeeland East 13 The Dux (5-0) ran their streak over the Chix (4-1) to five straight wins and in doing so remained tied with Muskegon for first in the O-K Green. Whitehall 35, Manistee 0 The Mariners (5-0) are alone atop the West Michigan Conference Lakes after blanking a Manistee offense that averaged 40 points per game during its 4-0 start.
HEADLINER Lake Linden-Hubbell 28, Powers North Central 25 The longest winning streak in Michigan 8-player football history is over. Lake Linden-Hubbell handed the three-time reigning champion Jets their first loss since the 2019 Regional Finals and after a stretch of 41 consecutive wins, pulling ahead with a long touchdown pass during the final minutes. Click for more from the Houghton Daily Mining Gazette.
Watch list Climax-Scotts 53, Bellevue 22 Climax-Scotts keeps climbing and got to 5-0 for the second year in a row with their fourth showing of 50 points or better, this time to send Bellevue to 3-2.
On the move Indian River Inland Lakes 26, Munising 24 The Bulldogs (4-1) played their second two-point game in a row, but this time came out on the winning side after falling to St. Ignace by two in Week 4. Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian 20, Gobles 17 (2OT) The Mustangs (3-2) ended another undefeated start, edging the Tigers (4-1) while holding them 42 points below their average this season. Marion 42, Rudyard 8 The Eagles may have given up their first points this fall, but impressed again against arguably their toughest opponent so far in Rudyard (3-2).
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PHOTOS (Top) Davison applies a pass rush as Saginaw United takes to the air during the Cardinals' 63-0 win Friday. (Middle) Marquette quarterback Jaxon Jurmu (2) keeps the ball and gains several yards before being tackled by Sault Ste. Marie's Owen Horrigan (52). (Photos by Terry Lyons and Cara Kamps, respectively.)