By Ron Rop
Local Sports Journal
HUDSONVILLE – Big plays helped the Muskegon Big Reds keep Caledonia at bay on Saturday afternoon.
Those huge plays were enough to push the Big Reds to a 34-21 victory and into the Division 2 state football finals. Saturday’s win over the Fighting Scots was played before a capacity crowd at Hudsonville High School.
The Big Reds’ list of game-changing plays was rather impressive.
* E’monte Briggs scored on a 7-yard run on a key fourth-down play in the first quarter.
* Marcus Smith took a pitch and ran 30 yards to the end zone in the second quarter.
* Sherman Hodges took the opening kickoff of the second half and sprinted 79 yards for a touchdown.
* Running back John King Jr. darted 60 yards up the middle for a touchdown on the first play of the final quarter. It was one of his 10 rushes that produced 146 yards.
* Quarterback Jalen Smith ran 85 yards into the end zone.
“With John King and our line and our skilled guys, we’re always one play away from going,” Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield said. “John had the big one and Jalen had the big one after, and as a coach, I look like it’s the perfect call, but it’s all the kids.”
Five big plays and five touchdowns and that doesn’t take into account the Big Reds’ defense that also had a few key stops here and there.
“This is a great accomplishment for us,” said Jalen Smith, who the ball 23 times for 141 yards. “We felt like we couldn’t lose any games in the playoffs after losing that last game of the regular season. We didn’t want that feeling again.”
Instead, Coach Shane Fairfield is taking his team to Ford Field in Detroit to take on Birmingham Brother Rice, a 31-3 winner over Wyandotte Roosevelt. The state title will be decided at 1 p.m. Friday.
The Big Reds never trailed, but it did feel the Fighting Scots breathing down their neck on several occasions in the second half.
Caledonia tried to make the game’s first key play when it gambled on a fourth-down and 1 in its own end of the field. Garrett Hubbell took the handoff, but was quickly smothered by Big Red lineman Ronald Jenkins and the Big Reds took over on the Scots’ 40.
It took 11 plays for Muskegon to get down to the 2. After a procedure penalty put the Big Reds back on the 7, Briggs scored on fourth down.
Muskegon’s next scoring drive began from its own 40 near the midpoint of the second quarter. Marcus Smith had a key 17-yard run and two plays later, he got outside the outran the defense for his 30-yard touchdown run.
Marcus Smith only rushed the ball six times, but he gained 60 yards.
Muskegon took that 14-0 advantage into halftime.
Hodges’ 79-yard kickoff return electrified the huge Big Red crowd and gave them a 21-0 lead. It appeared that would be the start of the end for the Fighting Scots.
Instead, the running and passing of quarterback Zach Zoet and the running and receiving of Heath Hoogerhyde kept Caledonia in the game.
After Muskegon went up three scores, the Fighting Scots came to life on their next drive. Hoogerhyde caught a 44-yard pass on the first play of the drive and seven plays later, Zoet scored on a 10-yard run.
After a Muskegon three-and-out, Caledonia got right back at it.
A nine-play drive that again was led by Hoogerhyde and Zoet’s rushing ended up in the end zone. Zoet found Hoogerhyde near the end zone on a 31-yard pass and the senior running back was able to fall into the end zone.
Just that quick, Caledonia was within 21-14.
However, the explosive Big Reds’ offense went back to work. King’s speed got him into the secondary and there was no stopping him as he dashed 60 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter.
The teams then exchanged turnovers. Demetrius Brown had an interception for the Big Reds, who returned the favor two plays later on a fumble that was recovered by Fighting Scot Isaac Andrusiak.
Again, the Zoet-to-Hoogerhyde connection worked. This time, Hoogerhyde was wide open for a touchdown on a fourth down and 3 play from the Big Reds’ 23.
The Fighting Scots were still hanging in there at 27-21 with 6:42 remaining.
Muskegon started its next drive with poor field position after a penalty. However, Jalen Smith came through with an 85-yard touchdown run on the first play of the drive to restore Muskegon’s two-score lead.
Six minutes later, the Big Reds were celebrating a victory.
“I didn’t know what to expect because they are a team that has played a tough schedule,” Fairfield said. “They’ve got a great defense, but you know you’re fooled with the record and who they play.
“I didn’t think it was going to be easy because their defense has played strong all year,” Fairfield said.
“I congratulate Caledonia for making it this far,” Jalen Smith said. “I knew they were going to fight. I knew they weren’t going to give up. They played a great game.”
Zoet rushed 16 times for 73 yards and completed 11-of-25 passes for 190 yards. Hoogerhyde caught seven passes for 126 yards.
The Muskegon defense was led by William Hunt with nine tackles. Deshaun Thrower had eight, Jenkins seven and Kenneth Finley seven.
And now an appreciative Fairfield is taking his team to Ford Field.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “I’ve thanked God my whole life. I’m not one to be ashamed to say that I believe in a higher power and everything happens for a reason. Every day I wake up and every night I go to bed, I thank the Lord that I am the guy that’s their inspiration and their leader and I am the most blessed one here because I’m responsible for all these young men and their futures.”