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.
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.)