State champs rely on unity to build success

Football Frenzy

HUDSONVILLE, Mich. (WOOD) — If life is about perspective and it’s learned along the way, Unity Christian football program is wise beyond its years.

The team is entering year 16 with, for the first time, the bullseye on its back of defending state champions.

It hasn’t always been an easy ride.

“Brand new football team. New program. No history at all,” Ross Baatenburg said of the inaugural 2003 Unity team. “Very few kids that experience it. I don’t think there were a lot of expectations to win three or four games, but be competitive at least.”

When Unity got the nod to start its football team, Craig Tibbe headed up the coaching staff. Sixteen years later, the longtime head coach admits he had no idea what he had gotten himself into.

“I just remember thinking this was going to be so much easier than what it was,” Tibbe said.

“We spent a whole practice having kids figure out how to put pads on,” Baatenburg piled on. “I think we had five or six guys that had done rocket football. So we had some knowledge of how to put stuff on but some kids, they would hold something up and say, ‘What is this? How do I put it on? How do I strap it up?”

The product on the field reflected a naive group. The Crusaders lost all nine games in a year marked with problems from start to finish.

The team bus broke down on the way home from their very first game in Hemlock. The team didn’t get back to Hudsonville until 3:30 a.m. Two games in the middle of the season came against Lowell and East Grand Rapids, two teams that were at the height of their success that both went on to win state titles.

The weather mid-season also didn’t cooperate for a team continuing to grow — cold, wind and rain only added to a downcast feel. 

Unity went without a point four games straight.

Then, finally, in the final game of the year, a chance. The Crusaders met their long-time rival Holland Christian. 

“They were 0-8. We were 0-8. We’re already big rivals anyway,” Baatenburg remembered. “It was a great game that came down to the last play, I think we lost by one if I remember correctly.”

He did. It was a 28-27 loss capping a winless year.

Yet despite the setbacks and the lack of winning, something much greater was born — Unity.

“It’s kind of the character of a lot of people around here,” Baatenburg said. “You start something you finish it. It’s not something where you say, ‘this is hard I’m done.’ You may not enjoy it anymore but we’re going to finish our commitment to it.”

Baatenburg’s winless team helped lay the first bricks to a team that’s found its foothold. They’ve missed the playoffs just twice since 2006.

The original players and coaches, for the most part, have hung around the program. Baatenburg used to coach the eighth-grade team after college. Now, he is the offensive statistician on Friday nights. 

“Looking back on it, obviously, time puts things in better perspective,” he said. “At the time, you got done and it was, ‘Did we really make the right decision?’ But looking back on it I would do it all over again, the same way if we had to.”

Tibbe agrees. He said the first year was probably harder on him than the players. He valued his own worth on how well his team was playing.

That has changed, along with his approach to coaching, which is noticeable on the field, according to those around him. 

“You learn from looking back and you have to grow from that. I had people telling me that I had to change and do things differently,” Tibbe said.

As this year’s Crusaders begin the season for the first time as the hunted rather than the hunters, there’s still as much to learn from looking back on last year’s success as year one’s failures.

“It kind of shaped my perspective on football and sports in general,” Baatenburg said. “The process of getting there is just as important as the end result.”

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