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Division 5 final: Grand Rapids West Catholic hangs on

James Hawkins
Special to The Detroit News

Detroit — Grand Rapids West Catholic found itself in a predicament it hasn't been in all season long: trailing late in the fourth quarter.

But behind the arm and legs of dual-threat senior quarterback Travis Russell, West Catholic orchestrated a 17-play, 64-yard drive and scored in the waning minutes of the Division 5 state final to gut out a 24-20 victory over Lansing Catholic.

West Catholic, the defending champ, opened the game with a 17-point lead but watched it dwindle as Lansing Catholic chipped away with 20 unanswered points.

Lansing Catholic went on top for the first time when senior quarterback Tony Poljan hit a wide-open Tony Palmer for a 22-yard score on fourth-and-10 to go up 20-17 with 7:38 left in the game.

Russell rallied West Catholic and led his team down the field on its final drive, picking up chunks of yards and converting a pair of third- and fourth-down conversions to give West Catholic a first-and-goal situation at the Lansing Catholic 5-yard line with 1:34 remaining.

"You got to have some moxie and confidence in the huddle with the guys. I told them, 'This is what we live for,'" Russell said. "We worked so hard all season for this moment. We woke up at 6 a.m. every single day for who knows how many months lifting and working out for this drive and this opportunity to win a state championship. I told them it was going to pay off. If they busted their butts this drive and gave it everything they had, it'll be fine."

After picking up 2 yards on first down and being stuffed for no gain on second down, Russell finally broke through on third down and scored on a 3-yard keeper up the middle to regain the lead, 24-20, with 1:34 to go.

"All I needed was a little crease, and credit to my offensive linemen for what they did," Russell said. "We finally we got it done on that last touchdown."

Lansing Catholic got the ball back at its 28 with 1:00 remaining, but Brett Wildman intercepted Poljan's second pass attempt to seal the game.

"All season we were stopping people and we knew that this was our test," Wildman said. "(Poljan) is a great player and he was throwing around us a little bit. We knew with a minute left that we had to stop him... They spread the field, threw it up, and I jumped the route and picked it off."

Russell finished with 203 yards passing, 134 rushing and three total touchdowns for West Catholic (14-0). Charlie O'Connor added four receptions for 111 yards and a score.

Poljan led the comeback for Lansing Catholic (13-1), throwing for 269 yards, rushing for 60 and recording all three of its touchdowns.

After falling behind 17-0 in the first half, Lansing Catholic finally got on the board after a 31-yard kickoff return coupled with a 15-yard penalty on West Catholic gave it the ball near midfield. A pair of 15-yard completions and a defensive pass interference penalty set Lansing Catholic up at the West Catholic 9-yard line in a first-and-goal opportunity it did not waste.

Poljan fought his way into the end zone on a 7-yard run but was stuffed on the two-point conversion to trim the deficit to 17-6 with 22 seconds left before halftime.

Lansing Catholic made it a one-score game after catches by Jack Peters of 13 and 37 yards set up Zac Baker's 41-yard touchdown reception, cutting West Catholic's lead to 17-13 with 1:37 left in the third.

"We caught the ball a little bit better in the second half than the first. That's probably the biggest difference. We just dropped some in the first half," Lansing Catholic coach Jim Ahern said. "I got to give a lot of credit to West Catholic. They're a heck of a football team ... It looks real complex what they're doing (offensively), but it's very simple things from a lot of different formations and we just couldn't stop them on that last drive."

West Catholic built its early lead behind Travis Hoving's 31-yard field goal on its opening possession to go up 3-0 with 6:49 left in the first quarter. The drive nearly stalled at midfield but was extended after West Catholic converted a fourth-and-2 at the Lansing Catholic 40 on a 12-yard keeper by Russell.

After a quick three-and-out, Lansing Catholic pinned West Catholic deep in its own territory at the 2. West Catholic got some breathing room as Russell completed a short pass, then picked up a first down on an 8-yard run. One play later, Russell hit O'Connor in stride and he outran the Lansing Catholic secondary for an 87-yard score, giving West Catholic a 10-0 lead with 4:04 to go.

"It was a post (route) and their safety floated over. I was able to find a crease and Travis made a great throw," O'Connor said. "I just had to beat one kid. It's one of those things where you're running for your life and all I could see was the end zone. It was a great feeling."

Lansing Catholic squandered a golden scoring opportunity early in the second quarter. After converting a fourth-and-8 on a 21-yard pass from Poljan to Peters, Lansing Catholic was set up with a first-and-goal at the 5-yard line. But Poljan was hit for a 5-yard loss by Bryce Witham on first down, then was stuffed for a 9-yard loss on fourth down by Wildman to force a turnover on downs at the West Catholic 14.

Two drives later, West Catholic tacked on another touchdown late in the second as Russell got the edge and sneaked inside the left pylon to finish off a 12-play, 68-yard drive on an 8-yard run. That gave West Catholic a 17-0 advantage with 1:34 remaining in the first half.

The win gave West Catholic, which was making its fourth state final appearance in five years, its fifth state title and back-to-back titles for the first time in program history.

"We knew it was going to be a battle," West Catholic coach Dan Rohn said. "When we fell behind a little bit, we didn't get too rattled. I think we played a great second half of football, but we were ready to make some plays and I was ready for that fourth-quarter drive.

"I put a lot of pressure on (Russell), but he's been here for 42 football games. Three years ago, we were in the same situation trailing Portland by three (in the 2012 Division 5 final), and we didn't get it done. But today we did and we're state champions because of it."

James Hawkins is a freelance writer.