At Muskegon’s two high schools, programs are connected by history

By Mark Lewis
Local Sports Journal

DETROIT – People were bummed (and rightfully so) that all four of our Muskegon area football teams didn’t make it through the state semifinal round last weekend.

Six lives connected by Muskegon-area football, from left, Muskegon assistant coach Justin Ego, Catholic assistant coach Scott Fodrocy, Muskegon head coach Shane Fairfield, Muskegon Catholic head coach Steve Czerwon, Catholic assistant coach Mike Ribecky, and Muskegon assistant coach Brent White. Photo/Tim Reilly

Six lives connected by Muskegon-area football, from left, Muskegon assistant coach Justin Ego, Catholic assistant coach Scott Fodrocy, Muskegon head coach Shane Fairfield, Muskegon Catholic head coach Steve Czerwon, Catholic assistant coach Mike Ribecky, and Muskegon assistant coach Brent White. Photo/Tim Reilly

But it struck me Friday, as we were boarding the van for the return trip to Muskegon after our teams went 1-1 on the day at Ford Field, just how special it is for us to be able to say that the City of Muskegon’s only two high schools appeared back-to-back Friday in their respective state finals games, the mighty Big Reds versus two-time defending titlist Brother Rice coming after Muskegon Catholic’s late morning showdown with Beal City.

It goes without saying that most of us would have certainly loved to see Shelby and Oakridge join the party – In fact, it always seems a little bit weird when at least one West Michigan Conference team isn’t in the state finals.

I’m confident both the Tigers and the Eagles would have represented us well at Ford Field.

Now I’ve been all over the greater Muskegon area this season, watching all those games (I count at least 17 this fall alone) as well as dozens of practices. There are special football programs at nearly every stop, each with its own twists on the game of football.

They’re all cool in their own ways and that’s that.

Yet, the programs at Muskegon and Muskegon Catholic are particularly special.

And not just because they both played in state final games this weekend.

Of course, Muskegon is the state’s winningest program, its history replete with legendary games and legendary players. There is no better place in the world to see a football game than in Hackley Stadium, some October evening when the trees across Jefferson Street are starting to flare, with the band coming down Fifth Street, then onto Washington Avenue and into the stadium.

And on the field the prospect of another state title team still in its infancy.

Who doesn’t remember fondly those 1986 and ‘89 title teams, or the Tony Annese-led title teams of 2004, ’06 and ’08?

The football history over at Muskegon Catholic, though getting off to a hot start in the 1950s before cooling considerably in the 60s, really started to heat up when Roger Chiaverini (for reasons I still don’t really understand) left Muskegon, where he had coached  from 1964-70, to take over the program at Catholic.

His undefeated 1974 Catholic team won the mythical Class B state title and Chiaverini was named the AP Coach of the Year.

After Chev left Catholic for West Ottawa, one of his assistants, Pete Kutches, took over MCC in 1980, leading the Crusaders to three straight state title games, and two state titles, in four years. Kutches went on to coach at Reeths-Puffer (yep, state title winners in 1992), while longtime Catholic assistant coach Ken Diamond (who took over at MCC just as the famed LMAC was breaking up) led the team for two years before taking his talents to Montague – where Diamond coached current Montague head coach Pat Collins in the 1992 state title game.

Coach Collins has two state titles, 2008 and 2009, under his belt.

Dean Jewett, another of Kutches’ assistants, led Catholic to the 1986 title game before leaving to coach Mona Shores, eventually returning to MCC to assist Mike Holmes, another Catholic assistant throughout the 1980s, before leaving again to assist his son, Kyle, at Reeths-Puffer.

Kyle Jewett played football at Catholic, helping to lead the 2000 team to a Class C state title.

Are you starting to see the connection?

Because the connections don’t end there…

Dig this: No less than four current Muskegon/Muskegon Catholic coaches played football together under Holmes (and longtime assistant coach Mike Ribecky), and one other was an assistant coach on those teams.

There’s Muskegon assistant coach Justin Ego and first-year Muskegon Catholic head coach Steve Czerwon:  The two were captains on Catholic’s 1994 squad, with Ego earning All-State honors.

One year before that, current MCC assistant coach Scott Fodrocy was a captain, and an all-stater on the Crusaders’ 1993 squad – he also started, as a sophomore, on the 1991 undefeated state title team.

And current Muskegon assistant coach Matt Bolles was a MCC captain, and an all-stater,  on MCC’s ’95 title team.

Oh, and Muskegon’s current head coach, Shane Fairfield, was an assistant at MCC when all four now-coaches donned the Crusaders’ gold domes.

Fairfield, of course, also played at Catholic, earning All-State honors in 1987, while also playing on that 1986 MCC state runner-up squad.

Still more connections: Muskegon Catholic’s head JV coach Chris Martinez played on Catholic’s 1990 state title team, while Kolin Convertini, an assistant on Czerwon’s varsity staff, played with Fairfield and earned All-State honors himself in 1989.

“I think it comes down to a bunch of guys who all love football,” said Czerwon. “This is where our roots are, so it’s great that we are all still really good friends.”

“I’m so proud of what Steve has accomplished over there,” Fairfield told LSJ’s Tom Kendra on Kendra’s Saturday morning football show following the state title games, going on to declare, with obvious levity, that he’s open to discussing with Czerwon filling next year’s season-opening game with MCC.

But the two teams needn’t meet (again) on the gridiron to make the two football programs, the City of Muskegon’s only two high school football programs, forever intertwined.

History has already done a good job of that.

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