DIVISION 5: Unity Christian relishes role as ‘underdog,’ stoning unbeaten Portland for program’s first state title
DETROIT — They weren’t even supposed to be here today.
Outsiders and naysayers kept disregarding Hudsonville Unity Christian — and the Crusaders coaching staff made sure that fact was forefront in the players’ minds.
They weren’t supposed to end five-time defending champion Grand Rapids West Catholic’s reign — even though most thought it was winding down. The Crusaders weren’t supposed to come back from a 27-point deficit against Muskegon Oakridge to win a third district title in four seasons.
They weren’t supposed to beat the prolific offense from Kalamazoo United, or the powerhouse No. 1 team from Saginaw Swan Valley.
As for Saturday’s Division 5 title game against No. 2-ranked Portland? Nope. No way.
“Coach says we’re not supposed to be here, because everyone roots against us, every week. In the polls, no one picks us — like two pick us, and eight don’t. We have 22 guys who are undersized (compared to) everyone else. We’re not supposed to win, but somehow, our coaches put a game plan in for us to win,” senior Noah Wiswary said. “Every week, we go out for practice, and we can’t hit, because we only have 20 guys that can play — so we can’t hurt each other. But we work on our game plan, we know what we’ve got to do, we get to the spots, and we do what we’re supposed to do.”
The Crusaders did what they were supposed to do on Saturday, too, relishing their underdog role as they jumped out to a 28-0 halftime lead, and rolled to an easy 42-7 win for their first state championship in the 16-year history of the program.
“Our first time in this type of situation, and this is pretty incredible for these kids,” Crusaders coach Craig Tibbe said.
“I think they did embrace that (underdog role). It was something that we had talked about, all the way through. We mentioned it again today. I said, ‘Nobody has probably picked you to be here. And there’s probably not a lot of people picking you to win today. So what are we going to do about that?’ We stepped up. They’ve done that each week. They’ve pulled for each other. I’m very proud of what they have become, as a group of guys. Part of that comes from having to battle through the teams we’re playing each week during the season. Low numbers, but they learned to fight. And we did a nice job again tonight.”
Through the Crusaders’ run to the finals, 87 percent of their offense came on the ground, and that didn’t change much in the championship game, as Unity Christian (12-2) racked up 349 total yards, 287 of that on the ground.
What may have been more impressive, though, was the way the Crusaders shut down the running attack of the Raiders (13-1), an offense that rushed for more than 3,000 yards on the season, but was limited to 95 yards on the ground, and 3.3 yards per carry.
“Obviously, we got beat up a little bit today, up front, on both sides of the ball. Their offensive and defensive lines played great, they’re a super athletic football team, and they’ve just got athletes all over the place. They just played underneath us,” Portland coach John Novara said. “We had a hard time moving them off the ball. We run the football very successfully, and we just couldn’t do it today. We had to resort to throwing the ball around a little bit, and they made some plays. That’s probably the most athletic football team we’ve played this season. We don’t get stoned too many times, but they did it to us today.”
The only scoring Portland could muster was a 91-yard kickoff return by star senior running back Jacob Veale. A transfer from Ionia who came back home for his senior campaign — he attended Portland schools through the third grade — Veale was a 1,600-yard rusher this season, but was held to 42 yards by the Crusaders.
“Didn’t work out the way we wanted to, obviously, but I wouldn’t change it for anything. This is more than I ever could have asked for,” Veale said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
The Raiders were forced into passing more than they were comfortable with, and the Crusaders made them pay for trying
Austin Schuiteman intercepted a pass, while Isaac TeSlaa picked off two and broke up another.
But it was on the other side of the ball that TeSlaa stood out more, as he rushed for a game-high 111 yards, scoring two touchdowns with his feet, and throwing for 70 yards and a touchdown.
“I don’t think it’s just about me. I don’t think I should be singled out,” TeSlaa said. “It’s a team effort, and our team played amazing. … All that time we put in, all those weeks that we didn’t quit, it just paid off.”
Hayden Large ripped off a 44-yard touchdown run to put the Crusaders on the board, then TeSlaa’s 31-yard touchdown pass to T.J. VanKoevering (and TeSlaa’s subsequent 2-point conversion run) made it 14-0 Unity Christian before the first quarter was half over. TeSlaa added scoring runs of 9 and 45 yards to make it 28-0 at the break.
“He’s just playing within what we’re asking him to do. He’s learning to run a little harder. We tell him he’s a pretty good athlete, and he just needs to start using that a little bit more. And he did. But those guys were stinging him tonight,” Tibbe said. “They came up and made some hard hits on some things at the edge, and were battling. He’s pretty tired. But he stuck with it, and knew he had to stay in it.”
Max Buikema’s 28-yard run put Unity Christian up 35-0 with 4:15 left in the third, but Veale’s kickoff return cut it back to 7-0. A 2-yard scoring run by Mason Odehnal in the game’s final 90 seconds finished the scoring.
“Just looking at them on film, we knew they were a very good offensive football team. They ran the gauntlet this year. They went through some great football teams to get here. If you can do what they did, and get here with the teams they played, we knew they were a heck of a football team,” Novara said. “We were just a little short today. We needed to make a couple plays to get momentum on our side, and just could never get it. But credit them, they were the ones that put us in that position.”