Division 5: Hudsonville Unity Christian cruises past Portland

By Eric Coughlin
Special to The Detroit News
Hudsonville Unity Christian running back Hayden Large runs past the Portland defense for a touchdown during the first quarter.

Detroit — The Hudsonville Unity Christian football program has only existed for 16 years, but it now has what many, much older programs don't: a state championship.

Unity bulldozed Portland in the Division 5 title game, 42-7, on Saturday at Ford Field.

"It was our first time in this situation," Unity coach Craig Tibbe. "It's pretty incredible for these kids. They stepped up. They pulled for each other. I'm very proud of what they have become as a group."

Junior quarterback and defensive back Isaac TeSlaa lived up to his reputation as a two-way standout. He had 13 carries for 97 yards and two touchdowns, went 3-for-4 passing for 70 yards with another score, and had two red-zone interceptions, thwarting two of the few scoring chances Portland had.

BOX SCORE: Hudsonville Unity Christian 42, Portland 7

"He (TeSlaa) made some plays tonight," Tibbe said. "He's playing within what we're asking him to do. They (Portland) came up and made some hard hits on him, but he kept battling."

"I don't think it's just about me," TeSlaa said. "I don't think I should be singled out. It's a team effort. All the time we put in, all the weeks that we didn't quit, it all paid off. Our team played amazing defense."

Amazing might be an understatement.

Unity's defense didn't allow a touchdown and held Portland to 184 yards of total offense. Portland could only manage 4.9 yards per passing attempt but was especially stifled in the run game, scraping out 95 yards on 29 attempts, a 3.3-yard average. Portland has more than 3,000 rushing yards this season, and its best rusher, senior back Jacob Veale, came into the game with 1,638 rushing yards (6.5 yards per carry) and 26 touchdowns. But on Saturday Unity (12-2) held Veale to 42 yards on 13 carries and no scores.

"We ran the football very successfully all year long, and today we just couldn't do it," Portland coach John Novara said. "We had to resort to throwing around the ball, and they made some plays."

Not to be outdone by their defense, TeSlaa and Unity's offense played with particular potency in the first half. Coming into the game, Portland had allowed fewer than 100 points all season, about eight points per game, with five shutouts. But when the first half ended, Unity hadn't punted and scored touchdowns on every possession except when it had the ball as time expired in the second quarter.

Unity came into the game averaging more than 300 yards rushing per game. On Saturday it came up just short of that mark with a still-impressive 279 yards on 50 carries for a 5.6-yard average. It was led by TeSlaa and 1,200-yard junior running back Hayden Large, who had 12 carries for 69 yards and one score.

Unity put together a memorable championship run. It started with a district win over five-time defending champion Grand Rapids West Catholic, which led to a dramatic, comeback victory over Muskegon Oakridge, followed by back-to-back wins over previously unbeaten Kalamazoo United and Swan Valley. The title romp was icing on the cake.

"Coach (Tibbe) says we're not supposed to be here because everyone roots against us every week," senior Noah Wiswary said. "We're undersized. We're not supposed to win, but somehow our coaches put in a game plan for us to win. Every week we go out to practice, and we can't hit because we only have 20 guys, we can't hurt each other. We work on the game plan, we get to our spots, and we do what we think we're supposed to do."

Even with the loss, Portland (13-1) has established itself as a perennial power in Division 5. It won a state championship in 2012 and is 42-5 over the last four seasons, but Unity's swarming defense was just too much.

"We got beat up today up front on both sides of the ball," Novara said. "Their (Unity's) offensive and defensive lines played great. They're a super-athletic football team. It's surreal we're here. We had to replace a ton from last year, no skill players coming back, and the kids really stepped it up."

"It didn't work out the way we wanted it to, but I wouldn't change it for anything," Veale said about Portland's playoff ride. "This is more than I ever could have asked for."

Unity drew first blood on its first possession. Large followed good blocking to the second level and sprinted by the Portland defense for a 44-yard touchdown. The two-point attempt failed, so Unity was up, 6-0.

After a Unity interception, TeSlaa struck quickly, finding senior TJ VanKoevering wide open in the middle of the field for a 31-yard score, putting Unity up, 14-0, after a two-point conversion.

In the second quarter, TeSlaa capped a 60-yard drive with a leaping, 9-yard touchdown run. After a failed two-point conversion Unity was comfortably ahead, 20-0. On its next possession, TeSlaa broke a tackle on a quarterback keeper and was off to the races for a 45-yard score. A two-point conversion made it 28-0 for Unity at halftime.

Senior running back Max Buikema scored for Unity in the third quarter on a 28-yard run in which he broke an arm tackle and then burst through the middle of the field. The extra point made it 35-0. On the ensuing kickoff, Veale took a hand off from Portland's other returner, and the Portland faithful finally had something to cheer about as Veale scampered 91 yards to make it 35-7. 

Senior running back Mason Odehnal added a 2-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown for Unity to end the scoring at 42-7.

Eric Coughlin is a freelance writer.