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By Steve Gunn and Dave Hart
The Big Reds overcame a late two-point deficit and scored a touchdown with 1:55 left on Saturday to take a seemingly safe 28-23 lead over St. Mary’s in the Division 3 state championship game.
But the Eaglets took the ensuing kickoff and drove to the Muskegon 18-yard line with the clock running down.
Then quarterback Caden Prieskorn hit Kyren Cunningham with a dramatic 18-yard touchdown pass with only four seconds remaining, allowing St. Mary’s to steal a stunning 29-28 victory and its third consecutive state championship.
Muskegon lost its fourth straight state title game in the most heartbreaking way possible. The Big Reds also lost in 2012, 2013 and 2014.
The 2014 loss also came against St. Mary’s, by a score of 7-0.
“We are going to go back to the grind and keep pushing forward, and if all goes well we will be back here again, fighting until we get it,” said Muskegon Coach Shane Fairfield. “That’s what life is all about, and that’s what football teaches you.
“A football game doesn’t define you. It’s what you do from that point on, after a win or a loss, that defines you as a person.”
Fairfield said the painful loss could not detract from the Big Reds’ accomplishments, which included 12 wins, an O-K Black Conference title, and Division 3 district and regional titles in the state playoffs.
“It was a phenomenal year,” Fairfield said. “We have a lot of great personalities and a lot of great stories, a lot of up and downs. You spend 14 weeks with these young men and you get really close to them.
“We have done a lot of great things. No one wants to win more than me and these kids. They showed great heart and great poise.”
The game was an emotional roller-coaster for the Big Reds, who built a 14-3 lead in the second quarter, had a 14-13 edge at halftime, and trailed 20-14 at the end of three quarters.
Muskegon’s Kalil Pimpleton scored on an 18-yard touchdown run less than a minute into the fourth quarter, and Demetrio Lopez’ extra point kick gave the Big Reds a 21-20 lead.
St. Mary’s Brian Fee responded almost seven minutes later with a 49-yard field goal – the longest in the history of the Michigan high school football finals – to put the Eaglets up 23-21 with 4:47 remaining.
The Big Reds then mounted what many figured would be the clinching drive of the game.
Clinton Jefferson Jr. fielded the kickoff at his own two-yard line and broke loose to the 50, giving Muskegon great field position heading down the stretch.
Muskegon quarterback La’darius Jefferson then hit a wide-open Pimpleton with an 18-yard pass, putting the ball at the St. Mary’s 28.
Jefferson kept the ball on the next play and battled his way through traffic for a 21-yard gain to the Eaglets’ seven-yard line.
Jefferson scored three plays later from two yards out, and Demetrio Lopez kicked his fourth extra point of the game, giving the Big Reds their final lead.
But St. Mary’s drove downfield for the final score on the catch by Cunningham, and left too little time for the Big Reds to answer.
“It’s a football game, this is what football is,” Fairfield said. “If you don’t want to be in these emotional roller-coasters, then this isn’t the sport for you. We all know there is going to be a winner and a loser.
“Last I checked we are still the winningest team in the state.”
The Big Reds drew first blood in the contest, taking the opening kickoff and driving 70 yards on six plays to take a 7-0 lead.
The drive was fueled by a 14-yard run by Da’vion Mccall, a 13-yard pass from Pimpleton to Jacorey Sullivan, a 28-yard pass from Pimpleton to Clinton Jefferson Jr., and an 18-yard touchdown scamper by Pimpleton with 9:59 left in the first quarter.
St. Mary’s responded on its first possession by driving 69 yards to the Muskegon 15, then kicking a 32-yard field goal to make the score 7-3.
The Big Reds fumbled on their next possession, giving St. Mary’s the ball at the Muskegon 45. The Big Reds dodged that bullet with a sack on third-and-12 by Derek Spann on the final play of the first quarter.
Muskegon then drove 80 yards on seven plays, capped by a four-yard touchdown run by La’darius Jefferson with 8:30 left in the second quarter, giving the Big Reds a 14-3 lead. The drive was sparked by a 54-yard pass from Jefferson to Pimpleton, which put the ball at the St. Mary’s 23-yard line.
St. Mary’s answered again, kicking a 35-yard field goal with 2:37 left in the first half to pull within 14-6.
The Eaglets’ Shermon Dabney picked off a Muskegon pass at his team’s 40-yard line with 1:19 left in the half and returned it to the Big Red 30.
St. Mary’s then scored on a 30-yard pass from Prieskorn to wideout Clay Antishin with 35 seconds left in the half.
The Big Reds clung to a 14-13 lead at halftime. Muskegon might have led by more, but St. Mary’s kept the Big Red offense off the field with a 16:10-7:50 advantage in time of possession.
St. Mary’s kept its momentum by taking the second-half kickoff and marching 85 yards on 13 plays for a touchdown. Prieskorn capped the drive, which took nearly half of the third quarter, with a one-yard touchdown burst, giving the Eaglets a 20-14 lead.
The Big Reds got back on top early in the fourth quarter. They fielded a punt and took the ball at the St. Mary’s 49-yard line, then drove 51 yards in five plays for a touchdown.
Pimpleton got the TD with 6:15 remaining by taking a handoff from Jefferson, bursting outside to the right and scoring from 18 yards out. Lopez added the extra point, giving Muskegon a 21-20 lead.
St. Mary’s counterpunched with a 49-yard field goal by Fee with 4:47 left, putting the Eaglets on top 23-21. Muskegon marched downfield for its touchdown with 1:55 left to go back on top, then St. Mary’s got the game-winning score in the final seconds.
St. Mary’s dominated the final time of possession, 32:40 to 15:20.
Ladarius Jefferson rushed for 57 yards (including two touchdowns) and threw for 88 for Muskegon. Pimpleton rushed for 56 yards (including two touchdowns), threw for 58 and caught three passes for another 88 yards.
Jacorey Sullivan led the Big Red defense with 11 tackles while Andrew Ward had eight.
Prieskorn completed 13 of 21 passes for St. Mary’s for 200 yards and two touchdowns. Rashawn Allen rushed for 145 yards for the winners while Antishin caught six passes for 103 yards.