As if losing to Muskegon Catholic Central in last year’s Division 8 regional finals isn’t enough to infuriate the Mendon’s coaches, seeing guys in Crusaders gear at Gibby’s Bar and Grill — the Hornets staff’s unofficial headquarters — on a regular basis adds an extra layer of gall. Conversations don’t often extend beyond head nods and “hellos”.
Saturday marks the third consecutive year the football powers have met in the postseason and second straight regional. But the coaches have crossed paths several times on the scouting trail already this fall.
“We know Gibby’s pretty well,” MCC first-year head coach Steve Czerwon told JoeInsider.com earlier this week. “It seems like we’re there every Saturday.”
Though there isn’t much that’s new to glean.
“We kind of joke at times that the Mendon teams all look the same,” said Czerwon, who served as a Crusaders assistant for nine years before taking over for Mike Holmes, who led the program for 25 years and won over 200 games en route to five state championships.
“They run the same type of plays and they’re based more on execution than deception. You kind of know what you have to prepare for with them, but they’ll try to out-execute you and you always have to be prepared for the few wrinkles that they’ll throw at you. It’s a tough week to get ready for a team like that.”
Winners of its last nine games, sixth-ranked MCC opened the season with two close losses to bigger schools Muskegon Mona Shores and Grand Rapids Catholic. The Crusaders beat a No. 1-ranked Mendon team 28-6 in the 2012 regional championship and lost to Harbor Beach, 32-27, in the following week’s state semifinals.
The Hornets, ranked No. 2 this year with an 11-0 record, topped MCC 28-21 in a 2011 district championship bout on their way to the school’s 12 state championship.
Muskegon Catholic Central hasn’t missed a beat under Czerwon, who started at quarterback there from 1992-94 before playing four years at Saginaw Valley State University under former head coach and current Minnesota boss Jerry Kill.
And Czerwon hasn’t messed with too many dials since taking a seat at the controls. The independent Crusaders (they’ll join the Lake 8 Conference next year) still use multiple offensive formations with a Wing-T base and a 4-4 defensive scheme.
“The system that we currently run was put in place by Roger Chiaverini in the early 70s,” he said. “Since that was put in place, every coach that has taken over has kind of carried on with the same terminology, the same language, and in a lot of ways, running the same plays.”
The one difference from last year is that running back/safety Alex Lewandoski — one of only two seniors that play significant minutes — will be on the field for MCC. The Division II college prospect missed the majority of last year’s game against the Hornets with an ankle injury. Lewandoski has rushed for 1,021 yards and 17 touchdowns this year and leads the squad with 63 tackles.
“It’s his senior year and he’s our best player,” Czerwon said. “He’s one of the best players, truthfully, in the city of Muskegon regardless of division. You feel happy for the kid. He’s been healthy all year and we’ve obviously gotten really good results because he is healthy.”
Junior left-handed quarterback Nick Holt has amassed 855 rushing yards and 19 TDs and classmate Tommy Scott is up to 616 yards and seven scores. Behind an offensive line of tight end Ian Tyler, left tackle Jaeden MacPherson, left guard Jake Schulte, center Nate Jones, right guard Jake Holt, right tackle Michael Caughey and tight end Lamar Jordan, Muskegon Catholic is capable of moving the ball with any back that gets the call. Czerwon said all but Jordan are 200 pounds or heavier, with MacPherson measuring in at 6-foot-3, 230, Holt at 5-10, 230, Caughey at 6-1, 220, Jones at 6-0, 210 and Tyler at 6-4, 205.
Muskegon Catholic Central has posted a school-record 467 points and outscored it’s last nine opponents 438-49.
Like Mendon, which has only surrendered 19 points all season, MCC prides itself on defensive dominance. The Crusaders have allowed just 27 points over the last seven games, including a 42-0 rout versus Traverse City St. Francis when the Gladiators converted only one first down. Many of the aforementioned linemen are doing the majority of the damage on the other side of the ball as well.
“You can only write about the people that score the touchdowns sometimes, but we have strong kids and they play awfully hard,” Czerwon explained. “We have a commitment to strength in the offseason. All those sophomores that played up last year and got to the semis, they took a real concerted effort that they want to make the next step this year. We’ll see if the work in the offseason pays off for them.”
Another common thread with Mendon is that goals don’t change no matter the level of experience on each team’s roster. It was the sophomore class that carried the Crusaders deep into the playoffs in 2012. Now juniors, they’ve been through the fire.
“It doesn’t matter if we’re suiting up freshmen, sophomores, juniors or seniors,” Czerwon said. “The expectation is to carry out your assignments and play the game hard. We honestly don’t look at what grade people are in. We just try to get the best people on the field.”