By Corey Rhodes
MENDON – One week removed from eliminating four-time defending state champion Muskegon Catholic Central, the Division 8 regional championship provided another significant opportunity for the Mendon Hornets.
This time, it was a rematch with the team that had eliminated Mendon from the playoffs each of the last two seasons: Climax-Scotts.
A week after re-introducing themselves as contenders for a state championship, Mendon rode its grind-it-out rushing attack and a stout defensive front to overcome another hurdle, beating Climax-Scotts 14-6 on Saturday afternoon.
“It’s really big for us, after taking losses to them the past two years,” said sophomore defensive tackle Emmett Bingaman. “It really hurts inside, for the whole year, until you get a chance to play them again.”
Pain of prior playoff failures is surely now relieved, as in a mere two weeks, Mendon has avenged five consecutive years of playoff defeats (MCC 2012-2014; C-S 2015-2016). The recipe on a cold, muddy afternoon was what everyone in attendance would have expected – a whole lot of running.
“I think we controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball,” Bingaman said. “That was the M.O. all week – control the line of scrimmage and we should be able to come out with the win.”
Head coach Robert Kretschman agreed.
“We felt we were able to control the line of scrimmage for the most part,” Krestchman said. “We thought about getting out of the [Wing-T] but it was working well for us so we’ll stick with it and keep controlling the ball, and one will break for us.”
Mendon opened the game with 88 yards rushing in the first quarter, while taking an early 7-0 advantage on a 10-yard touchdown scamper by Wyatt Cool. On the second possession of the game, sophomore fullback Austin Rensi fumbled at the Mendon 44, giving Climax-Scotts a short field to work with. The Panthers took full advantage, as L.J. Behlke capped off a 10-play drive with a touchdown from 4 yards out. A failed two-point conversion kept Mendon ahead, 7-6.
On a day of redemption for the entire Mendon program, Rensi earned some quick redemption of his own, scoring from 11 yards out on the very next drive. The touchdown pushed Mendon’s lead to 14-6, which would prove to be enough.
“I had a couple fumbles, and was getting yelled at by my linemen, and I started yelling back. But then I started thinking ‘hey, they block for me,’” Rensi said. “The key to running our ball is our linemen. Without them, we wouldn’t go anywhere.”
The offensive line took a hit in the second quarter, when senior center Kaden Frye was carted off in an air cast, with an undisclosed injury. Despite the injury, Mendon finished the day with 248 yards on 43 attempts. Rensi led the way, finishing with 103 yards and one touchdown on 11 carries – good for a hefty average of 9.4 yards per carry.
“Losing our center early in the game scared us a bit, so we didn’t want to do too much,” coach Kretschman said. “We’ve got this week to work on that. When one guy goes down, another guy has to step up.”
With a modest lead at halftime, Mendon was anchored in the second half by a strong outing from its defensive line. In the second half, Climax-Scotts was limited in its runs between the tackles, forcing the Panthers to try and run to the perimeter, or throw. Climax-Scotts finished with 125 yards rushing – only 33 of those yards coming in the second half.
“I look at our front four, those guys were going to be what we needed to take care of business,” Kretschman said. “The inside linebackers got a little over the top. Once we cleaned those things up, things started happening.”
“All year long, our M.O. is to hit people, and by the end of the game, they don’t want to get hit anymore,” Bingaman added.
Senior linebacker Mikki Feister saw the impact that the defensive line – particularly the interior line – had in the second half. As Mendon began to control the line, the linebackers saw better opportunities to get into the backfield and be disruptive.
“We knew they were going to be a physical team, and we had to match that,” Feister said. “They came out, and they were ready for us. But we made adjustments and feel like we shut them down. We made plays when we needed to, and that’s what helped us win this game.”
After consecutive wins over familiar foes, Mendon has proved it is ready to match just about anything. It has Mendon now playing for a spot in the state championship for the first time since 2011.
“I started managing on that team in 2011. I’ve been waiting a long time to play teams like MCC and Climax-Scotts,” said Bingaman. “It’s a great feeling, thinking back and remembering [that season]. Now, I’m a part of the team, and we’re going to make a run.”
Video by Cole Harrison