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West Catholic senior Gaetano Vallone has his team, as well as himself, in position to make history

By: Steve Vedder, November 9, 2017, 10:39 am

Grand Rapids – Gaetano Vallone is too concerned with the bigger picture to worry over a rare opportunity to make history for himself.

The Grand Rapids West Catholic senior quarterback said the priority is helping the Falcons become just the second team in state history to win five consecutive state titles. Whatever individual milestones that would come out of that championship would pale in comparison to those goals.

Even if Vallone has the chance to accomplish something no other quarterback in Grand Rapids history has done.

Vallone could become the first quarterback in area history to win three state titles if the Falcons (9-2) can reel off three more victories beginning with a win over Portland (10-1) in Friday’s regional final at Portland at 7 p.m. Four area quarterbacks have led teams to back-to-back state titles including Vallone, who has helped West Catholic win the last two Division 5 titles. West Catholic would join East Grand Rapids (2006-10) and Farmington Hills Harrison (1997-01) as the only teams to win five straight championships.

"It’s definitely something we talk about, but we don’t put a lot of thought into it," Vallone said of a fifth state title. "I’m not focusing on (being the starting quarterback for a third title). I’m just thinking about the next game. I do know it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But to be honest, that’s not my main focus."

Just three other Grand Rapids-area quarterbacks have led teams to back-to-back state championships, including former West Catholic star Travis Russell, the starter on 2013 and ‘14 teams who was a senior when Vallone was a freshman in 2014.

East Grand Rapids had four different starters in its five-year title run with Ryan Elble the only quarterback to start on two (2009-10). The other starters were DeMarcus Grady (2006), Calvin Blair (2007) and Andrew Thompson (2008).

The only other area starting quarterback for back-to-back titles was East Grand Rapids’ Kyle Cunningham in 2002-03.

Rockford is the other Grand Rapids-area team with back-to-back titles, but had different starters in Spencer Klukowski (2004) and Jon VonEschen (2005).

Vallone, who accounted for 593 total yards in his two previous finals starts, is confident this team can win another title. The Falcons’ two losses have come to teams still playing, Grand Rapids Catholic Central and Jackson Lumen Christi, teams that have combined for a 20-1 record.

But the path to another title is strewn with talented teams, including Frankenmuth (11-0), four once-beaten teams and Menominee, which has lost to West Catholic twice in the finals since 2013.

Still, three more wins is definitely possible, Vallone said.

"Winning a state championship is awesome, that should be every team’s goal," Vallone said. "Winning five in a row would be crazy, but it’s something we really want."

Former East Grand Rapids coach Peter Stuursma said the aforementioned quarterbacks likely all possessed the same four traits. They had the ability to forget a bad play, were competitive as well as talented, and were leaders.

"They are all rare traits. I’ve always said playing quarterback is one of the most difficult things in sports to do," he said. "It’s rare for the same quarterback to win back-to-back titles. A lot of it is because sophomore starters are rare. Obviously for a young man to do it three time is very rare."

Vallone will have much to say whether the Falcons add another trophy. The 5-9, 170-pound Vallone has run for 800 yards and 10 touchdowns, and throwing for 2,250 yards and 28 touchdowns. Last season Vallone threw for 1,800 yards and 22 touchdowns. He had one of his best games in the 43-7 victory over Menominee where Vallone threw for 311 yards and four touchdowns, and rushed for 83 yards and one touchdown on 13 carries.

West Catholic coach Joe Hyland said Vallone, who is 12-0 as a starter in the postseason, is a dynamic athlete. He has committed to play baseball at Davenport University as a pitcher and an outfielder.

"He has all the natural ability, no question," Hyland said. "But he is also the most competitive kid I’ve been around. It’s not even close. As things get bigger, he gets better."

Talk of state titles is nothing new in the Vallone family. His father, Vito Vallone, was a running back/linebacker on the 1992 Grand Rapids Kenowa Hills team, which lost in the Class BB final. The elder Vallone said he’s tried to pass along knowledge to his son in what it takes to succeed in big games.

"I told him just to enjoy it. At the end of the day it’s just another game and you can’t get too hyped up about it," Vito said. "I told him if you’re ready for it, good things will happen.

"He’s handled all the pressure well. He’s always been one of those players who from a young age can block out all the distractions. He’s never been a kid who dwells on the bad things. Gaetano knows you can’t do anything about that so for him it’s always on to the next play."

The younger Vallone said the input his father has offered has given him perspective.

"He tells me all the time that you have to work at it," he said. "He says I have to get fired up and be leader both on and off the field. And he’s told me how important learning to keep your composure is."

Vallone said there are two ways to look at the quest for another title. Having played in four previous championship games, West Catholic has the much-needed experience to excel in the big moments. At the same time, the journey leaves a team with a target on its back.

"I think there is some of both," he said. "Guys want to get back there and win it all again. That gets set up by a work ethic and grinding it out 100 percent. We also know we have a target on our backs. But whether it’s the first one or winning another, they are all special."