Catholic schools in Grand Rapids thrive in playoffs, build healthy rivalry
Grand Rapids – Vito Vallone believes the date is immediately circled when the football schedule comes out.
There’s no wasting time on northern color tours, early out-of-town Christmas shopping excursions, family gatherings or anything else that will take rabid fans away from a football field on this particular fall Friday night.
When Grand Rapids Catholic Central and West Catholic collide, life stops, Vallone said.
"Just two great programs," said Vallone, the father of West Catholic quarterback Gaetano Vallone. "It’s very competitive. Both teams want to win and have the bragging rights. Both teams know if you beat the other team you’ve had a good season. The competition is fierce; there is other team you’d rather beat."
Like the turning of the leaves, a deep run into the state playoffs for the Falcons and Cougars seems inevitable for teams which first met in 1965. West Catholic will attempt to become just the third team to win five consecutive state championships when it faces Saginaw Swan Valley in Saturday’s 4:30 p.m. Division 5 championship game at Ford Field. Catholic Central (13-0) will defend its Division 4 title against Edwardsburg in Friday’s 7:30 p.m. final.
It’s as fierce a rivalry as you’ll find in West Michigan, yet isn’t the high school equivalence of, say, Ohio State-Michigan, teams which may respect each other but also plainly dislike each other. West Catholic and Catholic Central coaches, fans and players talk more of respect than picking apart its rival.
"We as a team have a ton of respect for their program and their kids," said West Catholic coach Joe Hyland, whose team is the only one to beat Catholic Central the last two years. "It’s always a hard-fought game and then you move on and try to get better.
"There is definitely a rivalry and I think (Cougars coach) Todd (Kolster) would say the same the same thing. It’s very special. It’s a healthy rivalry."
There is no arguing that winning constitutes a huge part of the rivalry, but there is a deeper connection – and yet differences – between two schools located about six miles apart and separated by the Grand River. The players, for instance, begin playing against one another in football leagues operated by parishes which feed both schools. Families from both schools often attend the same Grand Rapids-area churches, with many current Catholic Central and West Catholic students having attended the same two schools as their parents.
There are also differences. Catholic Central is perceived by many as turning out more professional, white collar graduates. West Catholic produces more blue collar laborers.
It’s a rivalry that’s amassed some incredible numbers in terms of success in the state playoffs. West Catholic, for instance, takes a 24-game tournament winning streak into Saturday’s final.
Those numbers, however, only scratch the surface. The teams are a combined 50-7 in the postseason since 2010 with six state championships.
Catholic Central is 26-1 the last two seasons with the only loss being a 20-3 decision to West Catholic last year. The Cougars’ last non-West Catholic loss was a 28-14 defeat at the hands of East Grand Rapids to open the 2015 season.
West Catholic is 36-2 in the playoffs since 2010, and 102-19 overall the last 11 seasons.
The teams’ history dates back to playing in the Grand Rapids City League from 1965 to 2007. Catholic Central moved to the O-K Conference Gold Division and West Catholic was sent to the Bronze Division when the City League folded a decade ago. The teams were reunited in the Blue Division two years ago.
As for popularity, the teams drew nearly 7,000 fans to its October meeting at Fifth Third Ballpark. Two years ago at the opening of Catholic Central’s new field, any fan arriving after 4:30 p.m. was out of luck in finding a seat.
As well as the teams have played recently in the playoffs, while also producing classic regular season meetings, Kolster said the rivalry hasn’t always been completely positive. When he was Catholic Central’s athletic director, Kolster said there always seemed to be a steady stream of complaints filed by fans, parents and the community over often trivial incidents.
At some point after much dialogue between the schools, Kolster said those complaints have greatly lessened and what’s left is a healthier rivalry.
"It seemed like there were always complaints over one thing or another that I think West Catholic got as well. It went both ways," he said. "Somebody had done something wrong and that was disappointing. I think it’s different now."
Kolster said both schools have worked diligently in creating a healthy rivalry. He said games in all sports are clean and there is no tug-of-war over between schools on where the best athletes land.
"Our job is to keep things in perspective," Kolster said. "I think Joe and West Catholic have done that and I know we’ve tried. At the end of the day, (the students) both come from similar backgrounds and they respect each other. The best we have is that we’re both competitive, that we have the chance to be successful.
"There is a commitment for everyone to be the best they can. It’s been a great rivalry because we talk about respect and doing things the right way."