GR Catholic Central ends three-game losing to West Catholic with a 35-33 victory
Comstock Park - One of the great West Michigan football rivalries is not only back, it's apparently as fierce as ever.
That much was readily apparent in Grand Rapids Catholic Central's wild 35-33 win over West Catholic on Friday before a crowd more than 8,000 at Fifth Third Ballpark.
It was a much-anticipated matchup of defending state champions which resumed their rivalry a year ago after a seven-year hiatus. The win left Catholic Central (8-0) needing only a win next week over Coopersville to clinch an O-K Conference Blue Division outright title.
"Both teams have great kids, coaches and schools. You've got two great schools battling it out," Catholic Central coach Todd Kolster said. "What could be better? We have a lot of respect for each other; we're going to fight to the end."
The teams have recently played in separate conference divisions after formerly being together in the since disbanded Grand Rapids City League. Catholic Central has now won 30 of its last 33 games, including the 2016 Division 4 title. West Catholic, meanwhile, has won 53 of 59 games since late in the 2013 season with four consecutive Division 5 championships. Both teams joined the Blue Division last season, with West Catholic winning, 20-3. Catholic Central's last win was a 20-14 decision in the 2008 season opener.
The teams resumed the rivalry without missing a beat. The latest matchup included a tremendous performance from an undersized West Catholic quarterback, the more or less bottling up of a Catholic Central running back who was coming off a record-setting showing a week ago, a combined 10 touchdowns and the Cougars converting a clutch third-and-27 pass with five minutes left during the game-winning drive.
In other words, business as usual between two archrivals, which first met in 1965.
"We're both defending state champs and we both showed we had a heart of champions," said West Catholic coach Joe Hyland, who replaced Dan Rohn as head coach a year ago and promptly led the Falcons to a 12-2 record. "We have a chance to be in everything we do."
West Catholic (6-2) never led, but did cut 21-7 and 35-26 deficits to as little as two points. The Cougars never trailed after Nolan Fugate snapped a 7-7 tie with the first of his three touchdowns on a 1-yard run with 11:25 left in the first half. Fugate later added touchdown runs of 12 and 6 yards, the later giving Catholic Central a 35-26 lead with 3:09 left.
Included in that drive was a huge 35-yard pass from Jack Bowen to Nate Trudeau on a third-and-27 from the Cougar 38-yard line.
"Our No. 1 goal was to win an outright championship," Fugate said.
The 6-1, 208-pound senior wound up with 135 yards on 32 carries, a solid enough effort but a far cry from his Grand Rapids-area record of 477 yards last week against Comstock Park. Fugate entered Friday with 1,106 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns.
As well as Fugate played, West Catholic quarterback Gaetano Vallone was even more impressive. Vallone, who led the Falcons to back-to-back state titles, threw 18- and 52-yard touchdown passes to Zaavon Scott and Nick Dorato, respectively, and set up another touchdown with clutch runs of 14 and 29 yards that eventually led to a 1-yard run by Zack Lee that cut the margin to 21-20 with 5:49 left in the third quarter. Scott also added a 12-yard touchdown run.
Vallone was 16-of-22 passing for 183 yards and adding 20 rushes for 132 yards.
Vallone said one of the highlights of his career was playing against Catholic Central.
"It's awesome to play here. It's always a big rivalry with an electric atmosphere," he said. "The crowd played a big factor. It's what every player wants.
"Now we've got stay together and put this behind us. We've got to get it out of our head and keep grinding and play West Catholic football."
"He's a fantastic player and an unbelievable competitor," Hyland said of Vallone. "He's the heart of our team."