MUSKEGON – In a game of inches, Jaden Johnson’s wingspan and muscle came in handy for Muskegon Catholic Central’s football team Friday night at Russell A. Erickson Stadium.
The 6-foot-5, 245-pound senior made big plays on both ends of the field in crunch time to key MCC to a dramatic 30-28 comeback victory over host Oakridge in the CatchMark SportsNet Game of the Week, which served as a postseason tune-up.
Johnson’s blocked field goal with 2:52 left and his blocking on senior Joe Waller’s game-tying 1-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-goal with 12 seconds left and Waller’s deciding two-point conversion run made all the difference in the Crusaders’ second thrilling finish in as many weeks.
Photos by Scott DeCamp | CatchMark
Last week, MCC defeated defending Division 8 state champion Centreville, 24-16, on Sam Convertini’s 26-yard TD pass from Elliot Riegler with 6 seconds left.
“I don’t even know, I was just hoping I was able to get over there (to block the field goal),” Johnson said about Ryan Cribbins’ 28-yard attempt that could have given Oakridge a 31-22 lead with under three minutes left.
“The extra point before, the kicker kicks real low … so I said to myself, ‘If I don’t get this, you know, this could be the end of the game,’ and I just reached my arms up as high as I could and I’m a pretty big dude so I luckily got it.”
The battle of one-loss teams and league champions – MCC in the Lakes 8 Activities Conference and Oakridge in a three-way tie atop the West Michigan Conference – certainly lived up to its billing. The Crusaders hope their victory locks up home-field advantage and gives them even more momentum entering the playoffs next week.
Starting on its own 23 with 2:44 left after Johnson’s blocked field goal and recovery, Division 7 sixth-ranked MCC (8-1) quickly moved into red zone after a couple pass completions, a late hit by Division 5 10th-ranked Oakridge and a key scramble by Riegler to give the Crusaders first-and-goal from the 8 inside of a minute.
After Chase Willer’s 7-yard run to the 1, Oakridge’s defense stood tall with stuffs on second and third downs. After a timeout, Waller got the call on fourth-and-goal from the 1. The 5-11, 185-pound senior ran behind Johnson off left tackle, then he did it again on the ensuing two-point conversion.
Oakridge managed to get off a few plays in the final seconds, but could not advance the football.
“I knew my team wanted me to have it and there was no one else on the team they’d rather have run the ball, so I knew I had to come up clutch for them and I was just trying to lead by example,” said Waller, who finished with a game-high 107 yards on 13 carries. He also scored on a 65-yard gallop in the first quarter.
“Jaden’s big every night. He leads our team, encourages us, he’s a senior – he just plays hard and inspires us all to play hard.”
MCC took a 16-7 lead five minutes into the second quarter after Riegler’s 1-yard TD run and Waller’s two-point conversion.
Oakridge (7-2) had an answer, however. The Eagles pulled within 16-13 on senior Corey Vanderputte’s 17-yard TD run with 3:37 left in the half, then they got the ball back and had a little trickery for the Crusaders.
Ten seconds before intermission, senior Brenden Raymond fired a perfect halfback pass to junior Lorenzo Garcia in stride on a 32-yard connection. With Vanderputte’s two-point conversion run, Oakridge stunned MCC and took a 21-16 lead into the break.
Oakridge appeared to take command out of the gate in the third quarter. Sophomore Trever Jones scored on a 37-yard screen pass from junior Matt Danicek, and with Cribbin’s PAT, the Eagles built a 28-16 lead that they held until 11 minutes remained.
MCC senior Nick Powell’s 31-yard run cut the Crusaders’ deficit to 28-22.
Oakridge moved to MCC’s 16 with 2:52 left, when the Eagles had a decision to make on fourth-and-6: Attempt the field goal or try to pick up the first down.
“Well, ideally, we’d rather convert to get the first down, but being fourth-and-5 or 6, you know, the position we were in, we felt good about being within range and (getting) three points on the board,” Oakridge coach Cary Harger said. “We’d rather go for the field goal.”
The teams were pretty even statistically. MCC amassed 367 total yards on 49 plays, while Oakridge piled up 354 yards on 52 plays. The Eagles edged the Crusaders in rushing yards (251-246), while the visitors had a slight advantage in passing yards (121-103).
Riegler was 8-of-13 passing for 121 yards, while Danicek finished 5-of-11 for 71 yards. Danicek paced the Eagles on the ground with 96 rushing yards on 13 carries, including a 15-yard TD to open the scoring midway through the first quarter. Vanderputte gained 92 yards on 20 rushing attempts, plus he paced the Eagles with 10 tackles.
In his first game of the season coming off a knee injury, MCC senior Dane Rutz caught four passes for 68 yards. Junior David Hill led the Crusaders with 12 tackles, while junior Sam Kartes made 11 stops.
Friday marked just the third all-time meeting between the powerhouse programs, which split the previous two contests. Three weeks ago, MCC earned the 500th win in program history; one week later, Oakridge reached victory No. 400.
The latest installment of the budding rivalry exceeded any expectations.
“Two weeks in a row, we’ve shown some nice resiliency down the stretch,” MCC coach Steve Czerwon said. “You know, that’s what it takes to advance in the playoffs, so really proud of the kids with the way they played.
“I think we’re playing our best football because we’re believing in each other and we’re playing as a team, so I think that’s what all coaches want this time of year.”
Oakridge should be getting accustomed to playing hard-fought and crazy games by now.
Three weeks ago, Oakridge held off North Muskegon, 32-27. Last week, Oakridge built a 36-7 first-half lead, rival Ravenna rallied to tie it at 36, then the Eagles pulled out a 43-36 triumph in the final minute.
Despite the disappointing loss, Oakridge can look forward to its 17th straight playoff appearance and an uncanny stretch of 26 postseason bids in 27 seasons.
“The playoff atmosphere the past couple weeks has been great and so I think we’re going to kind of be over that hump kind of thing – it won’t be so much of a shock to see a playoff crowd,” Harger said. “Now it’s just a matter of one week at a time. We’re in the playoffs again and just to continue that, continue one week at a time.”
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