Detroit — Grand Rapids West Catholic fans may have been concerned when longtime coach Dan Rohn announced his resignation at the end of last season. Rohn had taken West Catholic to four straight state-title games.
No worry necessary.
In his first year at the helm, coach Joe Hyland steered West Catholic (12-2) to a 43-7 victory over Menominee at Ford Field to claim its fourth straight MHSAA Division 5 title.
“There have been so many good people in the community who have supported these young men, our program and me, and I’m really honored to lead a group of guys like this,” Hyland said on winning his first state championship.
The rout was on with 37 seconds left in the first quarter, when West Catholic junior quarterback Gaetano Vallone hit a streaking Brett Meyers for a 91-yard touchdown strike, making it 9-0.
Vallone, who fractured his elbow in Week 1, stood out among many impressive offensive performances for West Catholic. He went 13-for-20 passing for 311 yards and four touchdowns, plus ran 13 times for 83 yards and another score.
Even after fracturing his elbow, Vallone knew his team was headed to the state finals.
“With the work that the doctors and I put in, I knew I was going to come back eventually, it was just a matter of time,” he said.
The West Catholic passing attack didn’t let up in the first half. Senior receiver Sam Neville scored on receptions of 24 and 61 yards, and senior Aaron Hall added a 26-yard touchdown on a screen pass, making it 29-0 at half.
Neville finished the game with six catches for 117 yards and the two touchdowns.
His favorite part of being on four championship teams? The extra games.
“Year after year, competing like that, getting to play 14 games, we’re very lucky and blessed. That’s double what most people get to play over the course of their high school career,” Neville said.
Coach Hyland echoed the love for football that’s been established at the powerhouse football program.
“I believe it’s the greatest game in the world. The opportunity to mine values and virtues for young men to unpack and carry for the rest of their life is unparalleled in any other endeavor.”
West Catholic wasn’t all offense. Its defense forced seven Menominee (12-2) turnovers, an MHSAA finals record.
Menominee finally scored when senior Sam Larson blocked a field goal. Hunter Hass scooped it up and ran 76 yards for the touchdown, the first time in MHSAA finals history a kick has been blocked and returned for a touchdown.
Another finals record was broken when West Catholic kicker Liam Putz booted a 47-yard field goal to kick off the scoring. Putz has been solid for West Catholic all season.
“There have been times we’ve had dry spells offensively," Hyland said. "What we’ve been able to count on week in and week out has been Liam. He works really hard, but he’s a tremendous kid, too.
Neville mentioned the team didn’t immediately love Hyland, but retaining a good attitude is what put them on top.
“There were times when everyone wished things would go back to the old ways, but you’re not going to get anywhere by pouting and looking to the past," he said. "The only thing we could do is look ahead.”
Eric Coughlin is a freelance writer.