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GR West Catholic wins second straight D-5 title with win over Lansing Catholic

Football   | Joe Buczek

State Champs! Sports Network

Detroit – Travis Russell and his undefeated Grand Rapids West Catholic teammates found themselves in an unfamiliar situation in Saturday’s Division 5 state championship.

The Falcons were staring at a fourth-quarter deficit for the first time all season.

After leading 17-0 late in the second quarter, Russell and West Catholic mounted a methodical 17-play, 64-yard drive with 7:38 remaining in the fourth quarter, taking nearly six and a half minutes off the clock as West Catholic looked to retake the lead after Lansing Catholic jumped ahead, 20-17.

Russell, who completed 3-of-5 passing on the game-winning drive, including a controversial third-down pass to Connor Nemmers, ran the ball on three consecutive plays from inside the Lansing Catholic 5-yard line, scoring from 3-yards out with 1:07 to give West Catholic a 24-20 win and its second straight Division 5 title/

“When we got behind a little bit, we didn’t get raddled, and I thought we played well in the second half,” West Catholic coach Dan Rohn said. “We put a lot of pressure on our senior quarterback, but he’s been here for 42 football games.

“Three years ago we were in the same situation, playing Portland and trailing by three, and we didn’t get it done. But tonight we did, and are state champions because of it.”

Two years later, and with 27 more games under his belt, Russell reflected on that 12-9 loss to Portland in the Division 5 state championship game and on what he learned from that experience.

“Three seasons ago, I had the senior leaders and the senior linemen telling me that we’re going to get the job done and let’s do this. This year, it was the other way around,” he said. “I was able to rally the troops and tell the guys five yards for the state championship. I think the leadership aspect was the difference two years ago as opposed to now.”

The four-point deficit was part of a 24 unanswered-point effort by junior quarterback Tony Poljan and his Lansing Catholic receivers.

Trailing 17-6 at the half, Poljan kept the Falcon’s newly-found offense rolling in the second half, converting on third-and-five with a 37-yard completion to Jack Peters. Poljan then followed up on the next play with a 41-yard toss to Zach Baker to bring Lansing Catholic within four at 17-13 with 1:37 remaining in the third quarter.

After forcing West Catholic to punt, Poljan and the Falcons picked up where they left off with 7:38 remaining in the fourth quarter. With one fourth-down conversion already to his credit on the drive, Poljan found Tony Palmer wide open down the sideline on fourth-and-10 for a 22-yard score. That play, which capped off Lansing Catholic’s second consecutive 96-yard scoring drive, put the Falcons ahead for the first time, 24-20.

“We knew it was going to be a battle,” Rohn said. “Lansing Catholic is a great football team, and you don’t get to 13-0 and run through the schedule like they had without being a good program. We went up to Menominee last week and played a pretty good Menominee team that we thought prepared us well for today’s conditions.”

Russell, who finished 17-of-28 for 203 yards and a touchdown, had the Falcons rolling early with 165 yards through the air and 56 on the ground in addition two total scores in the opening half.

Trailing by 17 late in the second quarter, Lansing Catholic (13-1) got the spark it needed offensively when Poljan capped off a five-play, 48-yard drive on a 7-yard keeper with 22 seconds remaining before the half.

After being limited to 132 yards of total offense in the first half, the Falcons finished with 336 yards, paced by receivers Peters, Baker and Palmer. Peters posted a team-high 86 yards on six catches, while Baker and Palmer both caught touchdown passes while tallying 65 and 56 yards, respectively.

“I thought we just caught the ball better in the second half than we did in the first half,” Lansing Catholic coach Jim Ahern said. “Probably the biggest difference were the drops we had in the first half.”

Saturday’s win was the 23rd consecutive for West Catholic, which dates back to a 49-19 victory over Greenville in the sixth week of the 2013 season. With losses by both Ithaca and Ishpeming this weekend, the Falcons have the second-best current active winning streak in the state, trailing Clarkston (27).