Photos by CJ Bennett for CatchMark
GAYLORD — Up until Saturday, North Muskegon’s football team was unblemished on the season and reveling in an indelible run through the Division 7 playoffs.
An “Immaculate Interception” by Menominee midway through the fourth quarter of the state semifinals at Gaylord Memorial Field was a sign that this wasn’t North Muskegon’s day. It signaled the end of the road for the Norsemen.
Before that crazy play, Menominee’s physicality, pass rush, and coverage in the secondary set the tone in the Maroons’ 32-21 victory over North Muskegon.
Menominee (11-2) advances to the Division 7 state title game at 9:30 a.m. Sunday, Nov. 26, at Ford Field, where the Maroons will face perennial power Jackson Lumen Christi (12-1).
North Muskegon, which finished the regular season in a tie with Lumen Christi for the No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press’ Michigan Division 7 statewide poll, finishes its historic run with a 12-1 record. The Norsemen were making their first state semifinal appearance since 1986 and were seeking their first state finals berth since 1981.
“How much more fun can you have with 43 kids, you know. I don’t know. I think that the hard work and perseverance that these kids have had over the last 13 weeks is remarkable,” North Muskegon coach Larry Witham said.
“A lot of people come to games on Fridays, come to games on Saturdays — they don’t see what happens on Mondays, they don’t see what happens on Sundays, they don’t see what happens on Tuesdays or Wednesdays. You know, these guys put in just a tremendous amount of work.”
The first half was a struggle for North Muskegon. The offense could not get in a groove and managed only 20 yards as the Maroons built a 20-0 lead.
Senior running back Landan Bardowski sandwiched a pair of 1-yard touchdown runs around senior quarterback Trevor Theuerkauf’s 55-yard scoring sprint as Menominee’s offensive mix of single wing and other formations kept the North Muskegon defense guessing.
“We just couldn’t find a rhythm. We were really kind of searching for something to hang our hat on in that first half and just never really found it,” Witham said.
North Muskegon did not panic. The Norsemen wrestled away the momentum to start the second half and pulled within 20-14 just past the midway point of the third quarter.
Junior quarterback James Young’s 9-yard TD pass to junior TJ Byard and Young’s 1-yard scoring plunge, plus freshman kicker Drew Gabriel’s two PATs, pulled the Norse with six with 5:42 left in the third.
Photos by Scott DeCamp | CatchMark
North Muskegon’s defense got the ball back and the Norsemen pulled off a fake punt with a first-down run by freshman Cullen Bartos, but Menominee made a stand and flipped the momentum back in its favor.
Theuerkauf’s 1-yard TD run around left end made it 26-14 with 7:10 left, then came the “Immaculate Interception,” reminiscent of the “Immaculate Reception” made by the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Franco Harris in 1972.
Young’s pass over the middle, intended for senior Alec Newville, richocheted off the helmet of Menominee’s Aaron Brunelle. The ball landed in the arms of Bardowski, who returned it 50 yards for a back-breaker of a TD.
“First I was like, ‘I’m going to go get the quarterback, I’m going to get the quarterback,’ and I saw the ball going to No. 1 (Brunelle). No. 1 makes plays, all our DBs make plays. I saw that ball in the air and I was like, ‘It’s coming right to me,'” Bardowski said.
“At first, I was like, ‘I’m going to punish No. 4 (Young). I’m not even going to try and juke him — I just want to punish him.’ And I was like, ‘You know what, I’ll score on this.’ I hit him with a little juke, saw (number) 54 coming, juked him, and all I saw was daylight. It’s like, ‘Let’s go! That’s the dagger right there.'”
Bardowski’s pick-6 made it 32-14 with 6:24 remaining. North Muskegon tacked on an 11-yard TD pass from Young to junior Drew Bartos, plus Gabriel’s PAT, with 4.4 seconds left for the final margin.
Menominee finished with 263 yards of offense, 233 of it on the ground. Theuerkauf ran 19 times for 142 yards, while Bardowski had 26 carries for 88 yards.
North Muskegon totaled 209 yards of offense. Young completed 13 of 29 passes for 163 yards with the two TDs and three interceptions, and he ran 19 times for 21 yards. Cullen Bartos rushed nine times for 30 yards and he caught four passes for 69 yards. Byard made four receptions for 37 yards, while senior Landon Christensen had three catches for 37 yards.
North Muskegon junior Chuck Meyers paced the defense again with 19 tackles and a pass break-up. Newville had 13 tackles and an interception, which set up the Norsemen’s second TD of the third quarter. Senior AJ Larkin notched 11 stops for the Norse, while junior Henry Husmann made nine tackles.
“Would I do a lot of things different (in this game)? I’m not sure. I mean, that’s the way we played the game of football for 13 weeks,” Witham said. “These guys were a pretty good football team. They were physical, pretty fast — a little bit different than what we’ve seen over the last three weeks. It just took us a little while to finally get it into gear.”
Menominee, a true “UP power,” has reached the state semifinals 10 times since 1998. The Maroons captured state titles in 1998, 2006, and 2007, while they were runners-up in 2013 and 2016.
Menominee defeated Lumen Christi, 21-7, in the 2007 Division 5 state finals under legendary coach Ken Hofer. That was during a run of 28 consecutive victories and two state championships for the Maroons.
Menominee, which finished No. 9 in the final AP Michigan rankings for Division 7 this season, will be a heavy underdog against Lumen Christi but that’s OK by the Maroons.
“I told (the players), ‘All we need is what’s in our locker room,’ and I’ll take that group of kids anywhere. We’ll take them on the bus, go back (downstate to Ford Field),” Menominee coach Chad Brandt said. “We’re honored to be there and we’re going to give them everything we have.”
North Muskegon rolled to a second straight West Michigan Conference Rivers Division title and its first 9-0 regular season since 1986.
The Norsemen won back-and-forth thrillers against powerhouses Lawton in the district finals (27-24) and Pewamo-Westphalia in the regional finals (28-27). The Norse outscored opponents this season by a combined tally of 481-193.
“North Muskegon football has been what I’ve lived for, for four years now. It’s really hard to see it go,” Christensen said. ” … We’re just so tight together. I gave a speech in the beginning and it’s more than football — we’re a brotherhood. We’re all brothers, we’re all family.”
Said Newville: “It was fun. It was memorable. I’m going to miss these guys and I love them. It was a fun ride. … It’s pretty cool knowing that our group is the group (that broke through to the state semifinals) and it hasn’t been done (in a long time). I think they’ll keep doing it and I hope everything goes well for everyone.”
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