Hudsonville Unity Christian was founded in 1953, but it wasn’t until 50 years later that the school had its own football team. Not to belittle that group, but it was a far cry from the squad that won the Division 5 state title Friday with a convincing 42-7 win over Portland.
The Crusaders experienced some humble beginnings, going 0-9 in their inaugural season and 4-32 in their first four years.
“It was tough,” said Craig Tibbe, the head only coach in the program’s history. “It was harder than we thought. But my coaches stayed with it and the players stayed with it. They could have said, ‘Forget it, this is way too hard.’ They didn’t have any clue.”
Since then, Unity Christian has brought its fortunes up, qualifying for the playoffs in 10 of the past 12 years. And even though the Crusaders were making their first appearance at Ford Field Saturday afternoon, they played like seasoned veterans in their five-touchdown victory.
“We just work hard and listen to what the coaches say — we’re a really coachable team. We execute our game plans, play hard on defense and have a good offense,” said senior running back Max Buikema, who’s 28-yard touchdown run gave Unity Christian a 35-0 lead in the third quarter.
“We’re not big, but we come out and fight, and we fight hard,” said junior quarterback Isaac TeSlaa, who rushed for two scores and threw for another, all in the first half.
“Progressively, every week, I would believe in the team more. We’ve got players willing to fight and work hard at practice, whether we’re outside, or inside trying to get acclimated to the heat wearing sweatshirts in a hot gym. We get prepared,” TeSlaa said.
Unity Christian (12-2) did reach the semifinals in 2016. Otherwise, the Division 5 landscape belonged to Grand Rapids West Catholic, which strung together five titles until the streak ended this year, and other powerhouses such as Lansing Catholic, Saginaw Swan Valley and the Crusaders’ final opponent, Portland.
But Portland coach John Novara said the Crusaders also belong at that level.
“That’s a good football team; they’ve got athletes all over the place,” he said. “We’ve run the football very successfully all year long and we just couldn’t do it today. We had to resort to throwing the ball a little bit and they made some plays. They’re probably the most athletic football team we’ve played this season. We don’t get stoned too many times, but they did that to us today.”
Unity Christian played its finest ball during the five-week playoff run, which they started by knocking off West Catholic. From there, the Crusaders beat four teams who were all ranked higher than they were.
Tibbe couldn’t pinpoint why his team was so successful.
“In our first game (against Allendale) we were down 21-0 in the first quarter, and we thought, ‘Wow, maybe this is not going to be as good as we were hoping,’ and here we are,” he said. “You’re not going to know how things go, how injuries go. We stayed healthy. We were able to step up and make plays, and kids made some really nice adjustments on things, and all of a sudden, here we are.”
Since the football program’s inception, Unity Christian has won 18 state titles — 10 have been in girls’ soccer and five have come in boys’ soccer — so there’s no question where the school’s athletic reputation lies.
“There are a ton of athletes over on that field, too, and Coach (Randy) Heethuis has done a great job in what he does,” Tibbe said. “You look at how many times he’s been through it. He’s set the bar pretty high, and now we’re just glad to be a part of something like this.”
“We’ve got some good soccer players, but we’ve definitely got some good football players too,” TeSlaa said. “People don’t even think about that, but here we are, we just won state, you’ve got to give credit to our team.”
Now that the Crusaders have reached the pinnacle after 16 seasons, Tibbe said they are going to enjoy it, but stay grounded.
“We realize how fortunate we are,” he said. “It’s a blessing to be here, we may never make it back. That’s the reality of it; you just don’t know, you’ve got to enjoy it while you can. We would love to be like a Muskegon — they’re here all the time — but that just isn’t us. We just do what we can and see where we end up.”
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