The Grand Rapids Catholic Central football program was coming off of a 23-21 loss to Unity Christian in the district final in 2015.
Head coach Todd Kolster was confident in his team entering the 2016 season, with the experience returning.
"I felt really confident in the group of guys that we had," Kolster said, "but ironically we had a scrimmage right before our first game and it was probably one of the worst scrimmages I've ever seen and been a part of, to be honest with you."
And that's when the doubt crept in for the Cougars.
"We got torched and we were like, 'I don't know how we'll be this year, if we'll be like four and five,'" said linebacker Max Vacari.
It had been six seasons since Grand Rapids Catholic Central had won a state championship, which came in 2010 with a 27-23 win over Williamston in the state final.
"We always looked to that 2010 team, it had been so long, so we also wanted to be that team that brought a championship back to Catholic Central," said wide receiver and defensive back, ...
The Cougars debuted a brand new, state-of-the-art stadium in week one by hosting East Grand Rapids, a team that had beaten them in the previous three season openers.
"We didn't have a stadium at first, so we were playing all of these home games at Grand Rapids Christian or Forest Hills Central," added defensive back, Antonio Strong, "to finally hear we were getting a home stadium, it was great news."
In the Blitz Game of the Week, the Cougars beat the Pioneers in dominating fashion, 27-6 and knew how special the team could be.
"We definitely knew from the beginning that we were pretty good, especially when we beat East Grand Rapids as badly as we beat them," added Michael Brown.
To break the three game losing skid to the Pioneers also meant a lot.
"We lose to East a lot of years on those first games of the years, so people knew sooner rather than later," Vacari added.
Vacari and the Cougars jumped out to a 7-0 start to the regular season before a big OK Blue showdown with then (6-1) West Catholic.
Grand Rapids Catholic Central struggled to get much going offensively, falling 20-3 and suffering its first loss of the season.
"That loss to West Catholic really made us realize we weren't a team that couldn't be beat, anybody can be beat on any given night," Brown said.
And the players say that was when they really started to click and practice like a championship team.
"We lost to West Catholic and had to take a step back and lock in on our responsbilities," said runningback Nolan Fugate.
"We came back to practice way harder that week than we did before, we were practicing hard but not like we were after that loss," Strong added.
After an 8-1 finish to the regular season, the Cougars rolled Godwin Heights, Allendale and Escanaba by a combined score of 115-7 in the opening three rounds of the playoffs.
That set up a rematch from the 2015 district final with Unity Christian, with a trip to Ford Field and a state championship appearance on the line.
"It's some of those games that don't get recognized after you win a state championship, that's the big game everyone focuses on," Vacari said, "some of those games had to be my favorite, like semis going there and beating a team that beats you the year before."
The Cougars also fell to the Crusaders, 46-43 in the district opener in 2014 as the Catholic Central defense struggled to stop the wing-T offense.
"We didn't really know if we could get it done against the wing-T, we couldn't stop it all of those years," Strong said, "but it was for us to take it and we went and got it done."
The Cougars would go on to dominate, 31-3 to advance to Ford Field for the first time since the 2010 season.
Lying ahead was unbeaten Detroit Country Day, a team with a lot of talent that admittedly intimidated some of the Catholic Central players on film.
"They had the speed, athletic ability, a great offense, great defense, high scoring, it was like looking at ourselves in the mirror," said Brown.
And Max Vacari recalls a scary moment while diagnosing the film on the Yellow Jackets.
"Andrew Vernum was one of our defensive ends, a good buddy of mine growing up and was always the super positive one, every team we watched film on he'd say, 'we're going to beat this team, easily.' Then we're sitting there watching Detroit Country Day film and he's sitting there with his hand over his mouth and that was the first time where I was like, 'this is not a good sign,'" Vacari laughed.
Miraculously, with just one first down in the entire game, which happened to be a 44-yard touchdown strike from quarterback Jack Bowen to wide receiver Michael Brown, the Cougars were able to pull off the win, 10-7 the final.
"I wouldn't say it went exactly how we planned, I don't think any of us planned to have as bad of an offensive game as we did," Kolster chuckled while looking back.
All in all, a win is a win and it's something the players will never forget.
"That was a lifelong dream, when I went to high school, going to Catholic Central, it was 'win a state championship,'" said Strong.
"That moment, winning that game, and winning it not necessarily the way we thought it would go, was a really special moment." Kolster added.
The Cougars junior quarterback in 2016, Jack Bowen, would go on to lead the team to a 27-1 overall record as a starter and another state championship in 2017.
Bowen would go on to enroll at Vanderbilt as a walk-on quarterback and is entering his junior season with the Commodores.
"The city, the degree, the SEC, all three of them are top notch and I wouldn't trade anything about it, looking back," Bowen said via Zoom.
And the 2016 state championship is still something he looks back on to this day.
"I still think a lot about it, the guys on that team were guys I grew up with, it was something we always talked about," said Bowen.