By Paul Costanzo
Special for Second Half
DETROIT – As classmates and fans screamed his name from the Ford Field stands Friday night, Nolan Fugate put the focus on his teammates.
“I cannot thank my offensive line and my outside receivers enough,” the Grand Rapids Catholic Central senior running back said. “Without them none of this would be possible, and I just can’t thank them enough. They’re the best offensive line in the state.”
That line paved the way for Fugate, who gained 306 yards on the ground and tied an MHSAA Finals record with five total touchdowns as the Cougars defeated Edwardsburg 42-31 in the Division 4 championship game.
It was the second straight title for Catholic Central (14-0), and the program’s fourth overall. Coach Todd Kolster has led the Cougars to three of them (2010, 2016 and 2017).
“It has nothing to do with me,” Kolster said. “I’m the beneficiary of being the head coach for three of these, but it’s the kids that do all the work. They’re outstanding. This senior class, I love them so much. I’ve been so critical of them, and I say that all the time, because I came back here to Catholic Central with that class when they were freshmen and now they’re seniors. It’s really special to see these guys enjoy this, because they’ve earned every bit of it.”
This year’s title game was in stark contrast to last season’s when the Cougars eked out a 10-7 victory in a defensive struggle against Detroit Country Day. Big plays from both offenses highlighted Friday night’s game as Catholic Central had to battle to hold off a relentless Edwardsburg team down the stretch.
“They all mean the same,” Kolster said. “They all come in the right column, so we’ll take it.”
Seven of the game’s scoring plays were 20 yards or longer, including an MHSAA Finals record-tying 99-yard kick return touchdown by Edwardsburg’s Caden Goggins, and a MHSAA Finals record-tying 90-yard touchdown run by his teammate Nick Bradley.
On the night, the Eddies (12-2) averaged 9.7 yards per play and 10.8 yards per carry, while Catholic Central averaged 7.7 yards per play in managing to outgain Edwardsburg 448-369.
“Our defense, they played well -- we gave up a couple big plays, and Edwardsburg is a heck of a football team,” Kolster said. “We gave up three (big) kickoff returns and three big plays, but we handled them pretty well. That’s what they do, and that’s why they’re so good. That’s why they’re here, because they just keep at it, they keep at it and they’ll pop one, and they have confidence in that. But we have confidence in our guys.”
The Cougars’ defense did stiffen when it absolutely had to, as sophomore Ethan Lott came up with a tackle for loss on a 4th-and-1 play late in the fourth quarter to all but seal the game.
“Our guys did a great job on that 4th-and-1; it’s just a matter of reading their keys,” Kolster said. “I’m really proud of them.”
The game was absolutely put away when Fugate went 58 yards on a 3rd-and-10 in the final minute, barely getting tripped up at the Edwardsburg 10. It was another in a long line of huge plays for Fugate, who had touchdown runs of one, five, 54 and 32 yards, as well as a 20-yard touchdown reception from Jack Bowen.
Fugate also had 86 yards receiving and came down with a 38-yard catch along the sideline on a crucial 3rd-and-28 play midway through the fourth quarter with his team clinging to a 35-31 lead.
“The long third down, I saw (Bowen) leave the pocket and I was running my route and knew I had to get open,” Fugate said. “I just kind of boxed my guy out and said throw the ball, and I just did my best to make a play on the ball, and I was able to come down with it.”
The game put Fugate over 2,900 yards rushing for the season, and capped off a brilliant career that saw him set the school’s all-time career rushing record.
“Fugate is obviously a terrific runner,” Edwardsburg coach Kevin Bartz said. “I thought he ran as hard as I’ve ever seen him. We watched a good portion of film on him, and we knew he was fast, but I guess what I was more impressed with today is how hard he ran. He picked up lots of extra yards after contact. He’s an impressive athlete.”
Bartz was equally impressed with his team, which was playing in the title game for the first time and kept finding ways to hang around despite trailing by 16 midway through the third quarter.
On top of the record-tying touchdowns, the Eddies had scoring runs of 55 and 78 yards from Kyle Shrider, and 64 yards from Chase Sager. Shrider finished with 162 yards rushing, while Bradley had 96 and Sager had 73.
“Just to make it to this point, this was a team that was not expected to be here,” Bartz said. “With the number of kids we lost last year, we were kind of expected, I think, by most to be average at best. For them to come out here and perform against a top-level team like Grand Rapids CC, I’m extremely proud of these kids. They’ve now set the bar pretty high for everybody else at Edwardsburg.”
Bowen finished with 128 yards passing for the Cougars, while Erik Grabow had a 14-yard touchdown run.
Click for the full box score.
The MHSAA Playoffs are sponsored by the Michigan Army National Guard.
PHOTOS: (Top) Grand Rapids Catholic Central players raise the winner's trophy after Friday night’s Division 4 championship game. (Middle) Edwardsburg’s Kyle Shrider pulls away from a Cougars defender.