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.)
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.)