MENDON — Mistakes are magnified when the stakes are high. And when two equally matched football teams collide like they did Saturday at Schwartz Field, just one misstep can be catastrophic.
Mendon’s missed opportunity in the red zone early in the second quarter — a fourth-and-7 pass that fell to the turf — was like swimming in shark-infested waters with an open cut. Muskegon Catholic Central circled and finished the state’s second-ranked team off over the next 30 minutes for a 28-12 victory in the Division 8 regional finals.
It is the second time in as many years MCC (10-2) has knocked off Mendon in regional play, and the sixth-ranked Crusaders now get a crack at undefeated and fourth-ranked New Lothrop in next weekend’s state semifinals.
Second-ranked Mendon (11-1) and MCC each punted twice to open the contest before the Hornets got some traction on their third possession. Mendon’s first two times with the ball yielded just 25 yards on eight plays, with the Crusaders signaling early that rushing yards weren’t going to be surrendered easily.
“We expected that,” Mendon head coach John Schwartz said. “They had some big bodies in there and some speed with the linebackers. We knew we’d have a tough time just running the football and that we’d have to throw it.”
Hornets senior quarterback Robert Riley, who has led the offense this postseason after junior starter Jordan Medich broke his collarbone in the regular season finale, connected twice with senior receiver Kyle Wiswell for a combined 24 yards to position the team near midfield.
Senior Kaleb McCarroll and junior Elijah Klepper traded a several tough, short runs to move Mendon to MCC’s 20-yard line. The Crusaders defense got penetration on third-and-5 from the 15 and pushed McCarroll back for a two-yard loss before Riley’s fourth-down pass to Wiswell failed.
Before the Hornets even had time to lament the fruitless drive, MCC was on the move. Junior running back Blake Sanford exploded down the left sideline for a 53-yard gain to give the Crusaders a first-and-goal from the 5-yard line. Senior Alex Lewandoski did the rest to break the stalemate and give the visitors a 7-0 lead with 3:59 to play in the first half.
Mendon answered with a Riley-Wiswell air show, which featured three completions for 69 yards and a touchdown on a 22-yard play. The Hornets missed the point-after attempt and trailed 7-6.
The Crusaders quickly threatened again, but Mendon junior defensive back Parker Cupp intercepted a Nick Holt pass in the end zone with nine seconds before intermission.
Lewandoski has been Muskegon Catholic’s biggest weapon on offense this season, but he finished with just 46 yards on 18 carries Saturday. It was what Holt managed to do with his legs that hurt the Hornets.
Holt patiently felt out Mendon’s formidable defensive front before gashing the Hornets for 196 yards and two scores on 17 takes.
“The way Mendon plays, they’re so tough up front,” he said. “A lot of the runs that I had were little fakes inside and then going outside. Us being able to do that and [Mendon] keying in so hard on the running backs, it was just open for me. The second half we came out a lot harder and we just wanted to beat them up front, and when we beat them up front, our backs can run.”
Still, the Hornets had a great chance to take control to start the third quarter. Mendon’s Marcus Craft came away with a fumble recovery that gave his team the ball at MCC’s 38-yard line. Schwartz went back to grinding it out on the ground, with McCarroll and Klepper combining for nine straight runs before three straight passes netted negative-three yards.
On fourth-and-25 from the 25, Muskegon linebacker Ian Tyler dropped Riley for a nine-yard sack. Though Riley felt the heat all day, it was the only time he went down.
With a long drive of their own in response, Holt capped a 66-yard march with a 21-yard keeper to give the Crusaders a 14-6 advantage late in the third frame.
“Robert got [Wiswell] the ball and he did a good job,” Schwartz said. “He had a lot of pressure coming on the outside and I think they only [sacked] him back there one time; the rest of the time he was able to get rid of it. We’re proud of Robert; he stepped in and saved the season for us.”
Cupp gave Mendon some life on the ensuing kickoff return, hustling across the field and shifting gears up the left sideline to give the home team the ball at Muskegon’s 36. Wiswell kept making plays in traffic and a personal foul on the Crusaders for roughing Riley moved the Hornets to the 8-yard line. On second down, Wiswell pulled down a TD pass with 9:12 to play. The Hornets missed on the 2-point conversion but cut the deficit to 14-12.
That’s all the Hornets could muster, though, with MCC scoring on its next two possessions as a result of uncharacteristic missed Mendon tackles.
“I think our kids had their bobbers down a little bit near the end,” Schwartz said.
Mendon finished with 74 net rushing yards and 263 total yards. Riley completed 17 of 35 passing attempts for 189 yards, two touchdowns and one interception (fourth quarter). Wiswell tallied 150 receiving yards on 11 catches.
Muskegon Catholic Central posted 331 total yards on the ground.
“Overall I think we were the more physical team today,” MCC first-year head coach Steve Czerwon said. “That’s what we talked about all week: The more physical team is going to win. I think our strength of schedule and the teams we’ve played this year kind of showed in the second half and we were able to move the ball more successfully.
“We’re just pretty physical up front. They went to the pass and I give them a ton of credit because I know [Riley] isn’t their [original starter] and he did a heck of a job. Those kids played hard and made adjustments the best that they could.”
It’s little consolation for Riley and senior class that had the ultimate prize in mind as a way to end their prep careers.
“Every year we’ve played them it has been a battle,” Riley said. “They are a helluva football team. So are we. But in games like that, you have to make critical plays — you have to make the tough throw, make the tough run and get that extra yard if you want to get the win. Things just didn’t go our way and they made great plays.
“That quarterback made a couple great runs and we got off our assignments and he [sneaked] in behind us. There were a couple throws I know I missed — Elijah [Klepper] was wide open in the flat and I missed him. There are things we’ll be regretting for the next 10 years. It’s going to stick with all of us. Hopefully the juniors will use this as fuel for next year and work that much harder next year.”
Schwartz thinks all his guys are winners.
“There are only eight teams in the whole state of Michigan that are happy at the end of the season,” he said. “What’s neat about it all is that state title goes right through here. It goes through Mendon. If you want to win a state title, you have to come and you’ve got to play us. You get a lot of respect for that and we take a lot of pride and there’s a lot of tradition here.
“It’s always tough to lose, but the biggest things in football are the things these kids learn that will help them the rest of their lives. There’s going to be a lot tougher things they’re going to go through in their lives than losing a regional final football game. This is Step 1 to learning that. These guys will all end up being awesome dads someday. Most of my alumni are that way; I’m proud of them.”