The No. 1 team in Division 8 will be haunted by the number four until next season. Top-ranked and four-time defending state champion Muskegon Catholic Central couldn’t handle the sloppy conditions Saturday on the road. Meanwhile, No. 3 Mendon felt right at home in the mud.
The end result was a 26-15 victory for the undefeated and third-ranked Hornets, who capitalized on four MCC (9-2) turnovers, for a district championship. It broke a three-year losing streak to the Crusaders in the playoffs (2012-14) and served as the first district title for the program since 2014.
Mendon will host Climax-Scotts (9-2) Saturday at 1 p.m. in the regional round.
“It’s special,” Mendon coach Bobby Kretschman said of the win. “I’ve coached a lot of games against them as an assistant. This is my first one as a head coach. I remember teams [we had] that had great shots to make runs and we had some battles with them — 2013 is one that sticks out in my mind. I think this (win) was for a lot of kids on that team. Our seniors were freshmen the last time we played them. But they know what the rivalry is all about. It’s huge.”
On the first play from scrimmage, MCC’s Tommy Watts rushed 55 yards to immediately put the Crusaders in the red zone. But a false start and an incomplete pass forced MCC to settle for a 24-yard field goal by Caleb Muskovin. Even though the Crusaders took the lead, Kretschman said it was Sam Cleveland not giving up on Watts’ run that really stood out.
“A pure effort play,” he said. “We talked to the kids all week long about just getting to the football and never giving up and keep hustling.”
Mendon’s opening drive resulted in an 80-yard march on 10 plays that resulted in a 19-yard rushing touchdown by Wyatt Cool, who finished the game with an eye-popping 255 yards on 36 carries. Teammate Austin Rensi peeled off a 27-yard run on the fourth play of the drive to push the Hornets into enemy territory. Leo Barbosa’s extra-point attempt was good to give Mendon a 7-3 lead at the 4:50 mark.
Muskegon Catholic Central answered with a six-play, 60-yard scoring drive that included a 29-yard pass from Cameron Martinez to Ryder Smith on second down from midfield. On the next play, Martinez connected with Nolan Convertin on a 21-yard TD pass (kick failed) to regain the lead, 10-7.
Early in the second quarter, the Hornets stalled on the MCC 30 when a fourth down run by quarterback Decker was fumbled and recovered for no gain. Mendon’s defense came up big on MCC’s next possession, forcing a punt that backed the Hornets up to their own 15-yard line. A trick play on third-and-long went wrong for Mendon as Cool’s throw was intercepted by Jackson Reigler at the Mendon 40.
With excellent field position, the Crusaders got a first down but lost momentum after a holding penalty made it third-and-nine from the 29. Mendon’s Logan Hunter came up with an interception on the next play to end the threat with 3:30 remaining in the half.
Mendon punted away after a six-play drive was stopped at its own 23 with under a minute to play. Muskegon Catholic Central made the most of those final seconds, picking up a big chunk of yardage on first down when Martinez hit Smith for a 27-yard gain through the air, followed by a 16-yard keeper by Martinez. Smith and Martinez connected again, this time for a 21-yard touchdown with 18 seconds on the clock. The PAT kick failed and the Crusaders took a 15-7 lead into intermission.
The Crusaders wouldn’t score again.
Mendon pounded in the rain 12 times in a row to start the second half, with Corbin Weinberg picking up yardage on first down to set up Cool to clean up the rest to keep the chains moving. An 18-yard run by Cool put the Hornets at the MCC 44, then it was Rensi on first down with a seven-yard gain. Cool then rushed for seven- and 17-yard gains. On third down from the 4, Cool punched it in to cut into the deficit. After a two-point conversion run failed, Mendon trailed 15-13 with 6:20 left in the third quarter.
What turned the game completely around a minute and a half later was a Martinez fumble on a keeper inside Mendon territory. The Hornets’ Noah Slaughter jumped on the ball at the 37 and gave his team an opportunity to regain the lead.
Cool rushed three straight times but fumbled on the third carry. Fortunately for the Hornets, Decker was there for the recovery and the first down. A few plays later, Cool broke loose for a 29-yard gain to the MCC 12. A big run for nine yards on first down by Rensi set up a short Cool TD run for a touchdown to start the fourth quarter. Weinberg’s conversion run was shy of the goal line, but the score put the Hornets out front 20-15.
Muskegon Catholic Central bounced back with 39 yards on the next eight plays, moving to the Mendon 41. A fumbled handoff by the Crusaders was recovered by Mendon’s Kaden Frye with just over eight minutes remaining in the game.
Mendon ate up nearly the next six minutes with a 12-play, 59-yard touchdown march. Cool’s 25-yard run put the Hornets in the red zone and Rensi gained the final six yards on third down to cross the goal line. Leo Barbosa’s kick capped the drive and Mendon would hold the 26-15 lead for the final 2:03. Sam Cleveland made sure of that with an interception in Mendon territory with 1:23 to play.
On 62 attempts, Mendon racked up 355 rushing yards and held MCC to 193 on the ground. The Crusaders added 108 passing yards, but the two interceptions thrown were costly.
Mendon, which had just one penalty in the contest, made all four trips to the red zone count with TDs and 13 points were off turnovers.
Rensi finished with 83 rushing yards and Weinberg tacked on 22 for the Hornets. Fry led the defense with seven tackles, Hunter Lovell made five stops, and Cool, Cleveland, Arjun Vorster, Slaughter and Weinberg each had four tackles. Hunter recorded three stops, Mikki Feister had two, and A.J. Voorde, Barbosa, Rensi and Jackson Crotser all added one.
“We were able to capitalize on some turnovers they had,” Kretschman said. “It was a sloppy field. There’s no doubt that they had a lot of team speed. That quarterback and the Watts kid, their two slot guys have a lot of speed. It looked like they were slipping around a little bit. But there were a couple times I thought our backs, even being in the T, had some footing issues. That’s part of the game playing high school football in Michigan.”
Photos by Nicci Plummer
Video by Cole Harrison