Photos by Zach Zweigle | CatchMark
GRAND RAPIDS — Oakridge’s football team knew it would have a figurative mountain to climb in order to claim a Division 5 regional championship Friday night.
What the Eagles did not know is that the metaphorical obstacle in Grand Rapids Catholic Central was going to be more like climbing a real mountain — well, more like a snowbank.
With the first significant snowfall of the year, Oakridge made it a game but GRCC kept its unbeaten season going in a 25-6 victory at the Catholic Central Athletic Complex (C.A.T.). It’s the Cougars’ sixth-straight regional title.
GRCC (12-0) advances to next week’s state semifinals, where the Cougars will face the winner of Saturday’s regional final between Kingsley (10-1) and Frankenmuth (11-0).
Oakridge, which won another district title and earned a share of the West Michigan Conference championship, finishes its season with a 9-3 record.
“Preparation for this game is a huge mountain to climb in the first place — watching film and seeing how athletic they are, how fast they are and how aggressive they are,” Oakridge coach Cary Harger said, referring to the Cougars. “Trying to get our kids to raise their game in practice is a huge, huge hurdle to cross. Honestly, I was on them all week to move your feet, hustle, swarm tackle and all of those things.”
After losing to eventual Division 5 state champion GRCC in last year’s regional final, 58-7, Oakridge was looking for some redemption. The Eagles earned a little of that, executing their game plan to a “T” in the first half by holding the formidable Cougars offense to seven points.
Oakridge moved the ball on the ground in the first half, but the Eagles were unable to capitalize with points. They came up short on a pair of key fourth-down opportunities.
In the second half, GRCC extended its lead to 19-0 on touchdown passes from John Passinault to Notre Dame commit Nolan Ziegler and Ronin Russell-Dixon. Oakridge kept battling and scored its lone TD on a 75-yard kickoff return by junior Brian Elizondo.
Ziegler tacked on a rushing TD to complete the scoring.
“We wanted to improve our play over last year, and that’s what we did,” Harger said. “We felt better coming into this game. We thought we matched up better physically with these guys than we did last year.”
In his final game in an Oakridge football uniform, all-state running back Corey Vanderputte led the Eagles with 71 yards on 23 carries. Sophomore Trever Jones added 35 yards on six attempts.
Sophomore Brody Jennings paced Oakridge defensively with 10 tackles.
Passinault, who took over at QB after four-year starter Joey Silveri suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 4, threw for three TD passes for the Cougars. Ziegler finished with four catches for 84 yards and had 53 yards on eight carries.
Oakridge was proud of the battle that it put up against such a quality team.
“We just kept focused,” Vanderputte said. “Especially going into halftime — for them to only be up 7-0; for them to be that great of a team and for us to just be some kids from Wolf Lake, Michigan.”
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