By Greg Chandler
The singing from the Hope College football team after Saturday afternoon's game at Kalamazoo College's Angell Field sounded a little more exuberant than usual.
It was the song of a champion.
The Flying Dutchmen sang the words of the Hope fight song, penned by former coach and athletic director Ray Smith, after they clinched a share of their first Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship since 2007 with a 49-21 victory over the Hornets.
The victory in the Wooden Shoes Rivalry also guarantees Hope a berth in the NCAA Division III playoffs for the first time since 2006. The Flying Dutchmen (8-1, 6-0 MIAA) can clinch an outright MIAA title next Saturday at Ray and Sue Smith Stadium against Adrian College. Kickoff is 1 p.m.
"I'm so proud of our guys," head coach Peter Stuursma said. "That was about a group of seniors that started us four years ago and every day just kept grinding.
Photo by Tom Renner
"At the end of the day, players make plays. Players put us in the situation to be here. Our fans and the Hope nation should be really proud of these guys representing Hope College."
The MIAA championship is the 21st in Hope's history, and the first for Stuursma in his four seasons as Hope's coach. The Flying Dutchmen are now 31-8 overall, including a 22-3 mark in MIAA games, since Stuursma took over as head coach in 2016.
The Flying Dutchmen once again used their high-powered rushing attack to overcome a gritty Kalamazoo team that trailed by only seven points early in the second half. Hope piled up a season-high 453 rushing yards and got 100-yard rushing performances from three different backs.
Sophomore running back Kenyea Houston of Chicago, Illinois (Westinghouse Prep) led the Hope ground attack with a career-high 138 yards on 20 carries and scored a touchdown. Junior running back Connor Mellon of Adrian, Michigan (Madison) added 110 yards on 15 carries and scored twice.
Finally, quarterback Mason Opple of Hudsonville, Michigan (Hudsonville) rushed for 101 yards on 16 carries and scored three touchdowns, giving him 45 TDs for his career. Only David Booko, who scored 46 touchdowns from 2004-07, and Brandon Graham, who scored 49 TDs from 1994-97, have scored more touchdowns in school history.
The last time Hope had three players rush for more than 100 yards in a game was in September 2016, when the Flying Dutchmen defeated Concordia (Ill.) University 57-28 for their first win under Stuursma. Brandan Campbell rushed for 185 yards, Mike Miklusicak added 178 and Bruce Schroeder 156 in the win.
Hope took advantage of good field position to score the first two times it had the football. After the Flying Dutchmen had two sacks on Kalamazoo's first possession, Hope only needed 36 yards for the game's first score. Mellon scooted in from 10 yards out to give Hope a 7-0 lead a little more than three minutes into the game.
On Kalamazoo's next possession, senior defensive back David Bos of Hudsonville, Michigan (Unity Christian) intercepted the first pass of his career and returned the pick 27 yards to the Hornets' 40. Six plays later, Opple scored the first of his three touchdowns on a 5-yard run to extend the lead to 14-0.
A Hope fumble at its own 32 – just the second turnover committed all season by the Flying Dutchmen – helped Kalamazoo get back in the game. Jared Pittman's 2-yard TD run cut the Hope lead to 14-7 early in the second quarter.
However, the Flying Dutchmen quickly responded with a 73-yard, nine-play drive, with Opple powering into the end zone from five yards out to make it 21-7.
The Hornets came back with a 51-yard touchdown pass to narrow the gap to 21-14. Then at the end of the first half, Kalamazoo stopped Hope inches short of the end zone on a fourth down play, and the Hornets had some momentum going into the locker room at halftime.
The Flying Dutchmen kept grinding, and in the second half, started to pull away.
Opple scored his third touchdown on a 6-yard run midway through the third quarter to finish off a 56-yard, six-play drive. Later in the third quarter, Mellon dashed 32 yards for his second score of the day, and Hope led 35-14 going into the final quarter.
The Flying Dutchmen then added the exclamation mark to this championship victory with a 23-yard touchdown pass from Opple to junior H-back Lou Baechler of Plymouth, Michigan (Canton) and a 10-yard TD run by Houston.
"We got frustrated in the first half. They did some things," Stuursma said. "Our guys settled in and kept rolling. That's a credit to them to keep fighting and believe in what we're doing. That was a bunch of brothers playing together as a family. I love that."
The 49 points scored by Hope Saturday give the Flying Dutchmen a school-record 418 points on the season, topping the previous mark of 392 points set in the 2018 season.
Opple extended his streak of consecutive passes without an interception to 255 by completing 7 of 12 passes for 46 yards. His 101 rushing yards moved him into seventh place on Hope's career rushing list with 2,279 yards, and he moved into fifth place on the school's career passing yardage list with 4,145 yards.
Senior wide receiver Christian Bos of Hudsonville, Michigan (Unity Christian) caught four passes to raise his career total to 126, moving him into sixth place on Hope's career receiving list.
Defensively, senior defensive back Nick Holt of Norton Shores, Michigan (Muskegon Catholic Central) led Hope with seven tackles. Senior defensive back Luke Beckhusen of Coldwater, Michigan (Coldwater) made six stops, including two tackles for loss.
Senior defensive back Conner Nemmers of Grand Rapids, Michigan (West Catholic) and senior linebacker Mason Dekker of Holland, Michigan (West Ottawa HS), also made six tackles each, and both had a sack in the game.