GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — As the cool, fall air set in Monday evening following the rain, Grand Rapids West Catholic football head coach Landon Grove couldn’t quite believe it was already the final week of the regular season.

“I feel like we were just having a preseason scrimmage in the summer,” he said with a smile.

For his first year as the head coach of the Falcon football program, things have gone according to plan, for the most part.

West Catholic (7-1, 5-1 O-K Blue) started the year 6-0, dominating all teams in their path. They won five of those six matchups by double figures. Then in Week 7, the Falcons had a slipup. They fell to Fruitport (also 5-1 in conference play heading into Week 9) on the road 28-20, the first loss of the season with their next contest against a solid Coopersville squad looming over them the following week.

Grove challenged his team all week at practice to respond with a great effort against the Broncos. They did. The Falcons pitched a shutout performance on defense and put up 37 points for the victory.

“I think you find a little bit more out about yourself when you run into adverse situations,” Grove said. “We chose to make it a good situation (following the loss). It would’ve been easy for our kids to second-guess what we are doing here but instead they believed in it and trusted it.

“Now we have a chance to go out there Friday night and compete against a very good football team for a conference title as a result,” he continued.

The team Grove was referring to is 2021 Division 4 state runner-up Unity Christian (5-3, 5-1 O-K Blue).

Head coach Craig Tibbe and the Crusaders have similarities to the Falcons as a program still trying to discover where they are at. After losing a lot of seniors from a team that scored more points than any Michigan High School Athletic Association football team ever (775 points) last year, Unity Christian struggled to a 0-2 start in 2022 with losses to Whitehall and St. Joseph. It followed the early slump with five straight wins before losing to Spring Lake this past Friday, its first conference loss.

Much like West Catholic after its only conference loss, Tibbe is trying to steer his kids in the right direction this week and use the loss as a building point instead of a negative one.

“Both teams are going to be fighting out there because both side’s kids want it really bad,” Tibbe said. “I think winning (the O-K Blue) would be an important piece to us coming off of last year to see where we are at. If we don’t win, it’s about if we are competing with a great team like West Catholic.

“Last week we got beat,” he said. “We’re going to find out what we are made of very soon.”

The conference showdown kicks off 7 p.m. Friday at Falcon Stadium at West Catholic High School.

Both coaches understand the importance of this game and both expect it to be a dog fight until the finish.

“What don’t (the Falcons) do well?” Tibbe questioned with a laugh. “They’re pretty talented up front, on top of having to try to tackle No. 22 (Timmy Kloska, the Air Force running back commit). So we will see how that goes, they have a lot of good things going on offense and defense. It requires great effort on every play to beat them, which will make it tough on us.”

Unity Christian has been making waves through the O-K Blue recently, winning the last two conference championships. It also defeated the Falcons in the last three matchups; the Falcons finished in second place the last two seasons.

A win would not only give either side bragging rights and a conference crown, but also provide some momentum heading into the postseason. The Crusaders haven’t won a state title since 2018 when they were in Division 5, but still were able to make an appearance a season ago.

Unity Christian played Chelsea in the 2021 state championship at Ford Field in Detroit. (Andrew McDonald/WOOD TV8)
Unity Christian played Chelsea in the 2021 state championship at Ford Field in Detroit. (Andrew McDonald/WOOD TV8)

The Falcons last won a state championship in 2017. That may not sound like a long time, but the program expects a title every season following a run from 2012 to 2017.

As the fourth head coach in eight years, Grove preached earlier this season about holding this Falcon team to higher standards. His players responded well.

Friday night would be the next step for his legacy and he knows it won’t come easy.

“(Unity Christian) is very diverse. They’re like a spread team that runs the Wing-T and credit to them because they are very good at it,” Grove said. “Defensively they run to the football and tackle well. They present a lot of problems but what sticks out to me is they are winners, they’ve had our number for the last three games. They’ve been the big dogs in the O-K Blue the last few years. So our kids certainly won’t overlook that and they will have our full attention Friday night.”