Together, Unity Earns 1st Championship
November 24, 2018
By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
DETROIT – Hudsonville Unity Christian’s varsity carried 22 players during the regular season.
The Crusaders had six on the playoff roster who weighed more than 200 pounds – and one who weighed more than 210.
And talk about small, Unity is by far the smallest school in an Ottawa-Kent Conference Green that sent four teams to the playoffs and champion Zeeland East to the Division 3 Semifinals.
So before Saturday’s Division 5 Final at Ford Field, coach Craig Tibbe reminded his now 47 players (including moved-up freshmen and sophomores) they hadn’t been picked to make it this far – and probably weren’t the choice to win this game.
But the Crusaders absolutely belonged in their first MHSAA Football Final – and deserved to hoist their first championship trophy in this sport after handing Portland its first and only defeat this fall, 42-7 in a game Unity controlled from just about the opening kickoff.
“We’re not supposed to win. But our coaches put a gameplan in for us to win,” Crusaders senior defensive back Noah Wiswary said. “And every week, we go to practice and we can’t hit because we only have 20 guys that can play, so we can’t hurt each other. But we work on our gameplan. We know what we’ve got to do to get to our spots. And we do what we’re supposed to do.”
As noted, the championship was the first in football for Unity Christian, which has had great success in other sports, especially soccer, where the Crusaders girls have won 10 MHSAA titles and the boys have won five.
The football program got its start only in 2003, with this season’s 12-2 finish setting a record for wins and also including the Crusaders’ second trip to the Semifinals after they first advanced that far two years ago.
Tibbe’s pregame challenge ran parallel with the pep talks offered throughout a playoff run that might have been the toughest road of any team in any division over the last five weeks.
Unity Christian – which was ranked No. 10 in Division 4 by The Associated Press during the regular season before slotting in Division 5 for the playoffs – downed reigning Division 5 champion Grand Rapids West Catholic and four teams ranked among the top six in the division. In addition to No. 2 Portland (13-1), the Crusaders eliminated No. 1 Saginaw Swan Valley in the Semifinal, No. 4 Kalamazoo United in the Regional Final and No. 6 Muskegon Oakridge in the District Final.
Against Oakridge, Unity Christian trailed by 27 before charging back for a 40-37 win. Like Portland, Kalamazoo United and Swan Valley also were undefeated before Unity dealt them their only loss.
“They’ve done that each week. They’ve pulled for each other,” said Tibbe, who has led the program since its start. “I’m proud of what they’ve become as a group of guys.
“Part of that comes from we have to battle all the way through the teams we’re playing each game of the season, (and) low numbers, but they learn to fight. And I thought they did a nice job again today.”
It didn’t take long to get rolling. Both Unity and Portland boasted strong running attacks this fall – what they planned to do Saturday was no secret. But the Crusaders built a 28-0 lead five minutes into the second quarter having rushed for 173 yards while allowing the Raiders only one first down to that point.
The Crusaders ran for 279 yards on 50 carries total, with junior quarterback Isaac TeSlaa rushing for 97 yards and two touchdowns and also competing 3 of 4 passes for 70 yards and a score to senior TJ VanKoevering. Junior Hayden Large and seniors Max Buikema and Mason Odehal also ran for touchdowns.
The defense – led by junior defensive back Nick Tibbe’s nine tackles – pitched a shutout as Portland’s only points came on senior Jacob Veale’s 91-yard kickoff return touchdown with four minute to play in the third quarter.
Portland ran for more than 3,000 yards over their first 13 games, but for only 95 on 29 carries Saturday. Senior defensive back Hunter Hohman led the defense with 10 tackles and a forced fumble.
“Obviously we got beat up a little bit up front, both sides of the ball,” Portland coach John Novara said. “Their offensive and defensive lines played great. They’re a super athletic football team, and they’ve just got athletes all over the place … probably the most athletic football team we’ve played all season. We don’t get (shut down) too many times, but they did it to us today.”
Portland did tie its program record with 13 wins this fall, its fourth straight with double-digit victories. The playoff run was the Raiders’ longest since they won their first title in 2012.
“It’s still kinda surreal that we’re here. We had to replace a ton from last year. We had no skill kids coming back, and the kids really stepped up,” Novara said. “We started out really slow this season. … (But) I think we made a great playoff run. I know we were 13-0, but we got a ton better during the playoffs.”
PHOTOS: (Top) A pair of Unity Christian defenders make a tackle during Saturday’s Division 5 Final at Ford Field. (Middle) Crusaders quarterback Isaac TeSlaa braces for contact.
Mendon 8-Player Championship Game Run Paced by Record-Setting Rushing
By Geoff Kimmerly
MHSAA.com senior editor
May 26, 2023
Mendon’s run to the Division 2 Final last fall included some of the strongest rushing performances over the history of 8-player football.
The Hornets ran for 4,317 yards, second-most all-time, on the second-most attempts (520) and with a record-setting 682 yards Oct. 14 against Marcellus. Mendon also set the record for total offense with 692 total in that game, and made the single-season touchdowns list with 76 including 66 rushing (also second on that list).
Junior Jack McCaw made the single-season scoring list with 212 points, most coming on 29 touchdowns, and Evan Lukeman made the single-game rushing list with 401 yards against Marcellus. Mendon’s defense also earned praise, twice making the fewest-first-downs-allowed list with a low of three.
See below for more recent additions to the 8-player portion of the football record book:
Athens’ Landon Bennett earned a pair of record book entries after reaching the end zone seven times during his team’s 72-0 win over Burr Oak on Sept. 8. His seven scores are tied for third-most in 8-player history and included three rushing, three on punt returns and one on an interception return. The three punt return touchdowns are a record. Bennett is a junior.
On the night Powers North Central broke its 8-player record for consecutive wins, claiming its 28th straight, senior Luke Gorzinski tied Jets great Jason Whitens for the record for interception touchdowns in a game with two, scoring on returns during the second and fourth quarters. Gorzinski has signed with Michigan Tech, and North Central’s winning streak is 37 games and counting.
A pair of Atlanta offensive playmakers and a top defensive lineman earned a total of seven entries in the record book for achievements last fall. Senior quarterback Tyler Currie threw for 30 touchdowns over eight games, and also made the records for six touchdowns and 419 passing yards against Whittemore-Prescott on Sept. 23; the passing yards are second-most for one 8-player game. Sophomore Landon Galea was added for 263 yards and five of those touchdowns against the Cardinals, and also for 1,418 yards receiving and 23 touchdowns over nine games. Junior teammate Tucker Kendrick made the tackles for loss list with five against Hillman on Oct. 6.
Adrian Lenawee Christian senior Brady McKelvey became the first to make the career extra points list in 8-player football this past fall. He bettered his previous single-season record making 64 of 66 extra-point attempts over 11 games and finishing his two-year varsity career with 123 extra points in 127 tries.
Sam McKissack reached the record book showcasing multiple skills for Crystal Falls Forest Park during the 2021 season – twice for rushing attempts in a game including with a record 59 against Ontonagon that Sept. 10, and then with a record 70-yard punt Oct. 30, 2021, against Lake Linden-Hubbell. Teammate Devon Basirico also made the record book with six fumble recoveries over 11 games that season. As a team, Forest Park was added twice for single-game rushing attempts – including 73 total in that Ontonagon game – and for 424 rushes over 11 games for the season. McKissack and Basirico are seniors this spring.
Nikolaus Lewis tied for eighth-most rushing touchdowns in an 8-player game when he reached the end zone six times for Carsonville-Port Sanilac in its win over Caseville on Oct. 7. He’s a senior this spring.
Bridgman has won 24 straight games over the last three seasons, and an exceptional offense – and exceptional offensive star – have played major roles. The Bees were added for 658 total yards in a win over Lawrence last season, that total ranking third all-time, and also 613 yards in a win over Eau Claire. Those included totals of 575 and 547 rushing yards, respectively, and Bridgman was added for 3,598 rushing yards (sixth on the list), 59 rushing touchdowns (fourth) and 76 total touchdowns (seventh). Senior Reid Haskins capped his four-year, 32-game varsity career with 13 record book entries, including for 254 points last season over nine games (tied for fifth all-time) and a record 620 career points, 41 touchdowns last season (fifth) and a record 95 for his career, 2,344 rushing yards last season (third) and a record 5,206 for his career, and 41 rushing touchdowns last season (third) and a record 94 for his career. Senior teammate Tanner Peters made the records three times including for 50 extra points last season (fourth) and 99 over 26 games and three seasons (second on the career list).
Mio's Austin Fox rewrote the 8-player passing record book this past fall, with his 621 yards in a game against Whittemore-Prescott setting a single-game record as he totaled four of the five-highest passing yardage totals. He also set a record with 3,516 over nine games for the season, another record with 289 passing attempts over those nine games and a third record for nine touchdown passes in that game against the Cardinals. His 41 touchdown passes total rank fourth. Teammates Gage Long and Nathan Hurst also earned several record book entries on the receiving end of those passes. Long’s 297 receiving yards against Whittemore-Prescott were tied for third most, and Hurst’s 266 against Alcona rank eighth. Long set a single-season record with 1,739 receiving yards, with Hurst sixth all-time at 1,321, and Long’s 14 receptions against the Cardinals and 70 for the season also rank second on those respective lists. Hurst set a record for longest 8-player kickoff return with a 99-yarder against St. Helen Charlton Heston. All three are seniors.
Peck was one of the first MHSAA 8-player champions, claiming the title in 2013, and Cody Abrego one of the state’s first 8-player stars. The Pirates were added to the MHSAA record book 52 times, and Abrego 14 times individually. Among the most notable entries for the 2015 graduate were for 462 points scored over his two-season career (ranking sixth all-time), 74 career touchdowns (sixth), 2,202 rushing yards in 2013 (fifth) and 35 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (sixth). Current senior Caleb Lentner was one of the stars statewide this past season, and he was added eight times including for 50 points scored in a game (ranking second), 272 points for a season last fall (fifth), eight touchdowns in a game (tied for second), 42 touchdowns in a season (fifth), an 8-player record of 2,694 rushing yards from last season, and 38 rushing touchdowns also last fall (fourth). Others to make the individual lists were Nathan Robar, Caleb Dudley, Steven VanConant, Kyle Abrego and Nathan Neihaus, Dudley for a record 20 career interceptions over two seasons and VanConant for a record 12 tackles for loss in a 2022 game and 36 tackles for loss for the season last fall. The Pirates also are all over the 8-player team record book, including for a record 97 touchdowns in 2013, a record 5,895 yards of total offense that season, 528 carries, 4,346 rushing yards and 73 rushing touchdowns in 2013 (all ranking second); and 24 interceptions in 2014, which ranks second on that list.
Senior quarterback JR Hildebrand was one of the most dynamic players in 8-player football in the fall in leading Martin to the Division 1 title. He had one of his most exciting nights in a playoff opener against Tekonsha, making the single-game touchdown pass list with six in a 68-6 victory.
PHOTO Mendon’s Jack McCaw (21) eludes a tackle during the 8-Player Division 2 Final in November at Northern Michigan University. (Photo by Cara Kamps.)