***Article by Josh Longstreth
It has been quite the ride in 2023 for the Zeeland West Dux. After winning their first six games of the season, West dropped their last three regular season games when they got hit with the injury bug. The Dux have been able to reset and dominate their three playoff games, much of that led by their offense. Their most impressive game coming last week in a win over Parma Western to capture a Regional Title. That would set up a showdown with Forest Hills Central in a game that it was all expected to be and more.
Defense was the tone in this one early on as both teams were held scoreless throughout the first quarter. West would strike first early in the second quarter when, on a big 4th down play for the Dux, Trenten Bolhouse found Trey Sloothaak on a 7-yard passing touchdown. The two hooked up again on the two-point conversion and the West looked up leading 8-0. The Rangers would drive deep into Dux territory on their next possession before throwing an interception in the endzone that would give the West offense the ball back. Central would force a quick punt and after a solid return from Ty Hudkins, the Rangers had the ball inside the 30-yard line of West. The Dux defense would come up big yet again and force a 36-yard field goal that Central kicker, Alex Moeller, would pay off. After one half of play, Zeeland West would hold a slim 8-3 lead.
The Central defense came away forcing a punt on the Dux first drive of the second half and after a shanked punt the Rangers offense would set up shop in solid field possession for their first drive of the half. Central would pay it off for their first lead of the day on a Mason McDonald 2-yard dive to give the Rangers an 11-8 lead after the good two-point attempt. West would get some things going on offense before the quarter came to an end and Central would hold that lead heading to the final quarter of play.
West would use some ground and pound early in the quarter before getting the ball to the Central 1-yard line. That’s when they would pay it off on a Sloothaak dive for his second score of the game. The two-point try would fail but the Dux had the lead back at 14-11. Central would get the ball back with just under 9:00 remaining in the game. A slow, methodical start to the drive would have the Rangers offense moving the ball and eating a good amount of clock. They would be content with playing it safe and using the run game to drive all the way inside the West 10-yard line. With just 1:41 left in the game and Central facing a 4th and goal from the West 2-yard line, McDonald would make sure the Rangers would take the lead back as he dove in to put Central back up. The Dux would have some time left with 1:38 on the clock and trailing 14-18. West had some good field possession to start but the first play from scrimmage would spell doom for the Dux. Going through the air Bolhouse would get picked off by Brendan Cargill. The Rangers would set up in victory formation and that would do it. Forest Hills Central stamps another trip to Ford Field as they win a thriller over Zeeland West, 18-14.
Forest Hills Central was led by their defense most of the day but would come up big offensively in the second half. Mason McDonald led the way for the Rangers with 94 rushing yard, 2 rushing touchdowns, and 57 yards passing. JT Hartman finished with 75 yards rushing. Alex Moller got the Rangers on the board on a 36-yard field goal. Brendan Cargill sealed the deal with a big interception late in the game.
Zeeland West was able to slow things down for much of the game. Their defense played a big role in limiting the Rangers for much of the day. The offense was able to get going at times but Central wouldn’t limit the long plays for much of the day. The Dux finish the season at 9-4 and make their deepest run in the playoffs since 2015. The loss will have its toll as they lose key players Parker Holman (injured for much of the year), Rolando Robelin, Trenten Bolhouse, Orion Yant, along with key players on the offensive and defensive lines. They will return players that came up big for much of the year in Trey Sloothaak, Keaton Hendricks, and Issac VanderZwaag (injured for several games on the year).
Forest Hills Central has what they were working for come true, a trip to Ford Field for the second year in a row. They will take on Mason who pulled off a thriller of their own over Martin Luther King. The Bulldogs sit perfect on the season at 13-0. They were able to roll through much of the season despite facing five playoff teams. They are tested, however, as they have now pulled off thrilling wins the past two weeks (an overtime win over Walled Lake Western in regionals, and semifinals over the aforementioned Martin Luther King). This sets up to be an absolute battle as the two square off on Sunday in the 12:30 game.