By Ron Rop
Local Sports Journal
DETROIT – The Muskegon Big Reds’ football season came to a disappointing end on Friday in a 38-21 loss to the Birmingham Brother Rice Warriors.
It was the second straight season that Muskegon lost to Brother Rice at Ford Field in Detroit. For Brother Rice, it was its third straight Division 2 title and ninth for retiring head coach Al Fracassa.
The Warriors finished the season unblemished at 14-0 and Muskegon was 12-2.
“There’s going to be a winner and a loser, and unfortunately, two years in a row now we fell on the other end of it,” Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield said. “We’ll do something to get it right and get back here and win a state championship.
“These kids played a heckuva game, they’ve been through a lot, they are tough as nails and they played 28 games for our fans in two years,” Fairfield said.
Deshaun Thrower, in his last football game for the Big Reds (basketball begins next week), the senior quarterback rushed 22 times for 128 yards and two touchdowns. He completed 6-of-16 passes for 183 yards and one touchdown. For the season, Thrower rushed for 1,834 yards and passed for 1,293.
But on Friday, his play was overshadowed by Brother Rice quarterback Alex Malzone, who completed 20-of-24 passes for 263 yards and four touchdowns. He is a junior.
“He is a crafty kid, he’s tall, he sits in there and he throws,” Fairfield said. “He trusts his receivers will be where they need to be. I thought we hit him a few times and would rattle him a little bit.”
While Malzone had plenty of weapons to choose from, his main target was Corey Lacanaria, who caught 10 passes for 125 yards and one touchdown. The Brother Rice offense was on target most of the afternoon.
“They are a great football team,” Fairfield said. “They are undefeated, they are 14-0 and they are No. 20 in the country or something like that. They are a battle-tested team. Football is about execution and sometimes I don’t think we execute to the best of our ability.
“They had eight or nine players returning in the skilled positions and it showed,” Fairfield said.
Execution came easy in the early going for both teams.
The first half began more like a track meet than a football game as both teams took their first two drives and marched right down the field into the end zone.
Brother Rice relied more on the arm of Malzone and the Big Reds on the running game, including Deshaun Thrower, Javautae Thomas and Tavon Jackson. Malzone completed 13-of-15 passes in the opening half alone and gained 181 yards. Thrower had 117 yards of rushing in the first half and Thomas had 60.
The Warriors took the opening kickoff and, highlighted by Malzone’s 5-for-5 passing, needed just six plays to cover 70 yards. Their only running play netted minus-3 yards.
Muskegon, undaunted by that quick score, came right back. Jackson ran for 46 yards, Thomas later rushed for 13 and Thrower ran the final 6 yards into the end zone.
With 6:24 left in the opening quarter, each team had a touchdown on the board.
Brother Rice took the ensuing kickoff and went on another scoring drive. Speedy Corey Lacanaria ran for 18 yards on one play, but it was a one-handed catch by Grant Perry from 34 yards out capped the scoring drive.
But again, Muskegon had an answer. Thrower led another 80-yard drive down the field that took eight plays. Highlighting the drive were rushes of 12 and 19 yards by Thrower and a run of 15 yards by Thomas. Thrower capped the drive with a 16-yard touchdown run and after Adrian Briseno’s extra point, the Big Reds had tied the game at 14-all.
The game’s first punt came from Brother Rice in the early going of the second quarter and Muskegon had its chance to grab the lead. That drive stalled at the Muskegon 49 and the Big Reds were forced to punt.
Brother Rice, led by Lacanaria went right down the field again. But it was an 18-yard pass, that was nearly picked off, that landed in the hands of Grant Perry. Jason Alessi’s third PAT made it 21-14 for the Warriors.
Muskegon made some noise on its final drive of the half, but that drive also stalled.
The third quarter didn’t produce any more scoring, but the Warriors did move the ball in the latter stages in the quarter and put kicker Jason Alessi in range for a 36-yard field goal, which he made on the first play of the fourth quarter.
“They switched defenses in the second half and we had some missed opportunities,” Thrower said. “It was really like we couldn’t get in a rhythm in the second half.”
The Big Reds’ outlook got worse on their next possession when Thrower got hit hard from behind and lost the ball. Warrior Shaun Jones, Jr. recovered and Thrower was shaken up on the play.
Brother Rice began at the Muskegon 21 and while Thrower’s ankle was getting looked at on the Big Red bench, Malzone was hooking with Lacanaria on a 21-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the drive. Alessi’s PAT made it 31-14 with 10:58 remaining.
The Warriors turned the game into a rout when a fake field goal resulted in a 24-yard touchdown run by Malzone, the holder on the attempt. Alessi’s extra point made it 38-14 with 4:33 remaining. That drive started at the Brother Rice 45 and took plenty of valuable time off the clock.
Thrower hooked up with Justin Foster on an 86-yard touchdown pass in the game’s final minutes. Briseno’s extra point made it 38-21. That 86-yarder was the longest in Division 2 state championship game history and the fifth longest in state title game history, all divisions included.
Thrower completed a 48-yard pass to Joeviair Kennedy in the game’s final seconds.
And when the clock hit 0:00, the Warriors had their third straight state championship.
“I am going to go back and evaluate what we’re doing wrong in a championship game,” Fairfield said. “It’s my responsibility and duty to put these kids in the right position and give them a better chance to win a state championship.”
The season came to an end after a tough run through the playoffs against state-ranked teams to reach Ford Field and that included a rematch with Lowell on its home field.
“We really feel we had a gauntlet to go through in the first four games to get here,” Fairfield said. “I think every team we played had one loss or less that we had to play in the battles to get here.”
For Brother Rice coach Al Fracassa, it was his final game as the Warriors’ head coach.
“This feels great in Coach Fracassa’s last year,” Malzone said. “We knew that back-to-back state championships prior to this, but getting that third one would mean a lot to us and mean a lot to him. And especially go undefeated, get that Catholic League championship and win a state championship. It’s just a great feeling sending him out like that.”