Division 3 football semifinal preview: Big Reds ready to scrap with defending state champion Zeeland West

By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal

MUSKEGON – At first glance, the Muskegon Big Reds seemed a bit handicapped practicing on a small indoor soccer field Wednesday, due to the horrible weather outside.

How does a football team prepare for a huge game in such a small area?Shoreline football instory art

Muskegon Coach Shane Fairfield admits the practice field was too tiny to accommodate his explosive offense, but said it was perfect for the defense, at least this week.

That’s because the Big Red defenders are preparing for Zeeland West, which runs the deceptive wing-t offense. The two teams will tee it up Saturday at 1 p.m. at Greenville High School, with the winner advancing to the Division 3 state championship game Nov. 29 at Detroit’s Ford Field.

The wing-t offense involves tight formations, lots of fakes and quick handoffs, with the goal of hiding the identity of the ball carrier until he’s in the open and on his way to the end zone.

The major challenge for the defense is containing the play at the line of scrimmage, so there was plenty of room on the soccer field for the Big Reds to focus on quick tackles.

“This is the best coached wing-t team in the state,” said Fairfield, who heaps praise on veteran Zeeland West Coach John Shillito, who has also coached at Orchard View and East Kentwood. “I think he’s taken that offense to a whole new level. You know they are doing something right when you’re playing in a 10-yard space and you still can’t stop them.IMG_9397

“(The Dux offense) is still about hiding the ball, but just when you think you have it figured out, (Shillito) will pull that guy or send someone the other way. He’ll dissect your defense and exploit its weaknesses.”

So how will the Big Reds deal with a team that manages to keep the ball hidden so well?

They key is to be aggressive, but not too aggressive, according to Fairfield. A classic mistake against the wing-t is for defenders to plow their way into the backfield without knowing who has the ball. Before they know it, the play has passed them by.

“We have to stay physical and just build a wall,” Fairfield said. “They want you to pressure up field and take yourself out of the play. We teach them all season long, run to the ball and tackle. This week we have to feel it out and let it come to us, without letting them run us over.

“It’s fun (defending against the wing-t). If you can’t get jacked up about the opportunity to stop an offense like that, nothing can get you jacked up.”

Saturday’s game should be a classic matchup between two great teams with a lot of playoff experience.

The Big Reds, who advanced to the Division 2 state finals the past two years, displayed their postseason saavy in their last two games, coming from behind to beat a pair of less experienced opponents.

They fell behind early against Cedar Springs in the district finals, and against Petoskey last Saturday in regionals, but remained calm and made the necessary adjustments to win.

Having the confidence to rally in big games derives from playing in a lot of big games.

“It’s huge,” Fairfield said. “I’ve got over 30 kids with playoff experience. I’ve got 22 kids who played in the finals as sophomores. My seniors will be playing their 19th playoff game. That means they’ve played an extra two seasons of football.”

Perhaps the most calm player on the field last week was senior quarterback Shawn Pfenning, who completed 11 of 12 passes for 148 yards and two touchdowns, and also had a rushing touchdown against Petoskey.

“Coming in to the season, we were looking for him to be calm and be a good ball distributor, and he’s done that,” said Fairfield about his first-year starting signal caller. “He kind of reminds us of (Seattle Seahawks quarterback) Russell Wilson, who’s undersized but takes his team to the Super Bowl.

“He’s played some pretty good games. We’re 11-1 with him.”

Muskegon running back Caleb Washington also had a big game against Petoskey, netting 138 yards on the ground, including an electrifying 88-yard touchdown run.

Pfenning, Washington and all of their teammates are extremely eager to get back to Ford Field and have another shot at a state title, according to Fairfield.

“The kids are amped,” the coach said. “We’ve had a lot of really good energy in practice.”

Of course Zeeland West (12-0)matches Muskegon in recent playoff experience.

The Dux won the Division 3 state title last year, beating DeWitt 34-27 at Ford Field. They were also in the playoffs the three previous years, winning the Division 4 state championship in 2011. They weren’t in the playoffs in 2008 or 2009 , but made it to the Division 4 semifinals in 2007 and won the state title in 2006.

Not bad for a new school that’s only had a football program for 10 years.

The current Zeeland West squad is on a roll with a 24-game win streak. The Dux’ last loss was Sept. 6, 2013 to Zeeland East, 50-44.

In the playoffs this year they’ve beaten Byron Center 50-0, Stevensville-Lakeshore 30-28 and Lowell 30-27.

Zeeland West has a slew of dangerous ball carriers, including running back Nick Jasch (1,366 yards, 25 touchdowns), running back Darius Perisee (1,285 yards, 20 touchdowns) and quarterback Casey Brinks (approximately 800 yards rushing).

The Dux don’t throw much, but they can when they have to. A good example came against Lowell, when Brinks hit Dakota Geurink for a 56-yard scoring strike on the team’s fourth play from scrimmage.

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