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Resilient, 'Grounded' North Muskegon Building on 2022 Breakout with Superb Start

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 Resilient, 'Grounded' North Muskegon Building on 2022 Breakout with Superb Start

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To appreciate Landon Christiansen’s euphoria Thursday night, you have to understand the depths of his despair last fall. North Muskegon enjoyed a breakout football season in 2022 – going unbeaten in conference play to win the West Michigan Conference Rivers title – but Christensen missed almost all of it with a knee injury. But he has returned with a vengeance, leading the Norse to a 2-0 start, hauling in six passes for 260 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-21 win at Muskegon Catholic Central last week. “I felt like I was due for something good to happen,” said Christensen, a 6-foot, 170-pound senior.

“That game kind of made up for last season, in a way. It was such a great feeling.” North Muskegon (2-0), which is in Division 7, is no longer flying under the radar after back-to-back wins over state powerhouses – a thrilling, 17-14 win in the opener against Pewamo-Westphalia and then the air show at MCC. The leader of the Norse is junior James Young (6-3, 195), a third-year starter with a Division I college arm and pocket presence. North Muskegon coach Larry Witham said after Thursday’s big win at MCC that he has given Young “the keys to the kingdom” – referring to the dizzying number of playmakers he has all around him. While Christensen was the man against MCC – scoring on touchdown passes of 59, 32, 12 and 78 yards – in future games the leading role could go to junior wideout TJ Byard, senior slot Alec Newville, senior running back Ben Meyers or junior H-back Drew Bartos. “I have a lot of skill guys to throw to, and the chemistry is great,” said Young, who completed 70 percent of his passes for 2,022 yards and 26 touchdowns in nine games last season.

“We’ve been playing together since we were little kids.” That special bond was apparent from the emotion displayed by Young and other teammates after Christensen’s return to glory Thursday. “Getting him the ball and then watching him do his thing was honestly very emotional for me and a lot of the guys on the team,” said Young, who was near perfect against MCC, finishing 19-of-20 for 391 yards and four touchdowns. Witham said this year’s 26-member Norsemen team is incredibly humble, unselfish and grounded – characteristics that could be attributed to the injuries and health issues the team has endured. Christensen was just one of many injured players for the Norsemen last season, joined by leading rusher Denny Belmonte (knee) and Young, who had a torn labrum which required surgery after the season. The team also has dealt with more serious life-threatening issues, with Tate Pannucci and Ethan Bates battling cancer (Pannucci has returned to the field) and senior Mitchel Peterson hospitalized much of last season with blood clots. “These kids are very grounded, and they keep each other in check,” Witham said. North Muskegon starts WMC Rivers play this week at Mason County Central. While the Norse broke through with an 8-1 regular season last year, the playoffs haven’t been kind.

NM hasn’t advanced out of Districts since 2006, when it lost to Saginaw Swan Valley in a Division 5 Regional Final. The Norse were eliminated by Pewamo-Westphalia in 2019 and 2020, then lost low-scoring Pre-District games to Ravenna the past two years. Witham said his team learned valuable lessons during those losses. “We know that we have to be balanced and have to be able to run the football,” said Witham, a 1980 North Muskegon graduate who is in his eighth year as head coach.

“Wintertime approaches early in the state of Michigan. We are not going to live and die throwing the football when it’s 32 degrees and snowing.” With those early playoff exits in mind, Christensen and his teammates are putting in extra practice time on a daily basis. “None of us are comparing stats,” said Christensen.

“We all have different strengths, and that’s what makes it hard for teams to guard us. We just want to win games and make it as far as we can.” Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties. PHOTOS (Top) North Muskegon junior quarterback James Young drops back to pass at Muskegon Catholic Central on Aug.

31. Young completed 19-of-20 passes for 390 yards and four touchdowns in the Norsemen's 41-21 victory. (Middle) North Muskegon senior receiver Landon Christensen hauls in a pass during last week's win. He caught six for 260 yards, including TD receptions of 59, 32, 12 and 78 yards. (Photos by Mike Banka.)

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