DETROIT (WOOD) — It has been a long time coming for the Grand Rapids West Catholic football program — or at least it felt that way.
The Falcons earned the Division 6 state championship in a 59-14 win over Negaunee at Ford Field Friday.
A year ago, no one would have expected it. The Falcons (13-1, 6-1 O-K Blue) had been a staple at Ford Field, making it to the Division 5 state championship game from 2013 to 2017 and winning every single time.
Then they began to struggle. From 2018 to 2020, West Catholic stumbled through unfamiliar territory, compiling a record of 13-15. In 2021, the team finished 9-2 but lost to Grand Rapids Catholic Central in the playoffs while also losing their head coach Justin Michalowski.
Before the 2022 campaign, the Falcons went down to Division 6, had been on a four-year stretch without a trip to a state title game and needed a new head coach for the fourth time in eight years.
Landon Grove probably wasn’t the first name most Falcon fans would’ve guessed. Even he didn’t know he would be in the position. He was the head coach at Gibralter Carlson on the east side of the state, where he felt was home. But when his wife had a job offer in West Michigan, they decided to move. Grove learned the Falcons job was available and he went after it.
Now, just months after taking the job, Grove has brought the Falcons back to the standard.
He said he couldn’t have been happier to join the West Catholic community.
“It’s hard to put into words what these kids, this community and this school mean to me,” Grove said. “I said it when I took the job, it takes a community to raise a football team. And that holds true here at West Catholic. If we need a meal or travel plans from parents, they’ve got it. It’s a group effort.
“These young men have had a few different coaches… It’s not easy but they bought into the high standards we had. It takes a lot to believe in me coming from all of that, but I love these kids, I love this community and I love this school.”
The Falcons won every game in the postseason by double figures while scoring no less than 33 points in any of those contests. They were known for being a second-half team in most of those games.
Friday looked like it could be different. The Falcons made their presence felt right away. On the first play of the game, Bernie Varnesde dropped back and looked deep, connecting with wideout Carter Perry who was streaking up the home sideline for a 72-yard touchdown. The crowd was going ballistic and the bench was full of life.
The score stayed the same until midway through the second quarter, when the Falcons would once again score on a pitch and catch from Varnesde to Perry, this time from 32 yards out as Perry weaved his way into the endzone. West Catholic led 14-0 and it seemed like all of the momentum was in its favor.
Negaunee wouldn’t go out so easily. On the last play of the first half, the Miners scored on a fade route to tight end Ty Jacobson. Then to open the second half, Phil Nelson returned the kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 14 all.
“Seeing them take that opening kickoff back for a touchdown fired me up,” Falcons senior running back Tim Kloska said. “I wanted to get back on the field.”
The next possession, he did. Kloska went 61 yards to the house on a run over the left side of the line. Like so many times this season, he shed defenders near the line of scrimmage and won the footrace to the endzone.
After forcing the Miners into a three and out, West Catholic struck again on another big play. This time it was Varnesde looking downfield and seeing wide receiver Andrew McAlary coming wide open near the lions logo. He dropped it right in his hands for a 68-yard score that the combination made look easy.
The Falcons didn’t allow a point on defense for the entire second half. Kloska scored three more touchdowns and the Falcons cruised to a comfortable 45-point victory.
West Catholic scored more points in this 2022 state title game than any other team in MHSAA history.
While the Air Force commit Kloska has led the Falcons offense all season, the three passing scores showed the Falcons are more than capable of putting up points in every facet of the game.
“The more (Kloska) gets the ball the better rhythm he gets in, so we try to feed him the ball as often as we can,” Grove said. “But getting the ball to guys like Carter or letting Bernie do his thing is something we can do, getting it to our guys on the perimeter as well. A lot of credit should go to our O-line. They’ve gotten so much better from the start of the year and they deserve a lot of credit. They just did what they do.”
On the ground, the Falcons outgained the Miners 295-100. 242 of those yards came from Kloska on just 19 carries. The senior leader has meant a lot to the program which he grew up following.
“All of my friends and teammates watched (West Catholic) teams win state titles when I was in seventh grade,” Kloska said. “This has been a dream and it’s a great feeling because we worked so hard.”
When Grove thinks back to the summer with seven-on-sevens and a new group of kids to lead, he was still trying to figure out what he had. Now, without having to think ahead, the community, the program and their new leader know they are back in the position they want to be in: winning state championships.
“We felt like we had a special group as time went on in the summer, things just had to develop,” Grove said. “We had to develop the maturity to take the time to say, ‘I’m going to do this so that my team can flourish.’ These guys did not care how we did it, Timmy could have got zero touches today, zero touchdowns and wouldn’t have given a crap because he wants to win. That’s how championship teams are built, they trusted the process.”