By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal

There’s something about playoff time that brings out the beast in the Muskegon Big Reds.

Last week, playing for a conference championship, they performed just well enough to get past crosstown rival Reeths-Puffer by 13 points.

But in the rematch on Friday, in the first round of the Division 2 state playoffs, the Big Reds looked like a completely different squad.

They blasted out of the gates with three first-quarter touchdown runs by Deshaun Thrower and cruised to a 49-14 victory over Reeths-Puffer at Hackley Stadium, setting up a rematch next week with Lowell, who handed the Big Reds their only loss of the season.

Thrower led Muskegon with 166 yards rushing, including 96 in the first half, and four touchdowns.

“There is an expectation here – not from me, but from the entire community, it’s everywhere you go,” said Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield, whose team is now 9-1 “We’re supposed to play for championships and trophies. We’re not supposed to be one and done. I’m just blessed to have such a great team and a great staff. Our kids love playoff football.”

While Muskegon jumped out to a big early lead, Reeths-Puffer had its chances to get back in the contest.

The Rockets scored two touchdowns in the second quarter, cutting their deficit to 28-14 at halftime.

But Muskegon halfback Javauntae Thomas did his best work in the third quarter, making sure the Big Reds remained in control.

Muskegon took possession of the ball at its own 43 midway through the third quarter. Thomas ripped off runs of 17 and 25 yards on the first two plays from scrimmage, then capped the drive three plays later with an 11-yard touchdown run.

He added a 68-yard touchdown run late the game to cap off the scoring.

“Usually I always do better in the second half – I don’t know why,” said Thomas, who finished with 152 yards rushing.

“I was thinking we had to win – it’s the playoffs. People were saying we were lucky last time (against Reeths-Puffer). We had to prove it wasn’t luck.”

Fairfield doesn’t know why Thomas is always better after halftime, but he was happy about his performance Friday.

“He’s a second half guy,” Fairfield said. “I guess he has to get dirty. Next week we’re going to throw him in the mud, kick him in the butt and see if he does better in the second half. But seriously he’s an amazing young man and we’re lucky to have him.”

The game couldn’t have started out better for the Big Reds.

They took the opening kickoff and drove 70 yards in seven plays, capped by a 23-yard touchdown run by Thrower.

Muskegon started its next drive on the Rocket 44 and quickly cashed in. Thrower faked a handoff on the third play from scrimmage and blasted through the middle for a 39-yard touchdown run.

Reeths-Puffer contributed to its own problems late in the first quarter, fumbling deep in its own end and giving Muskegon a first-and-goal at the 9.

Thrower scored on a 4-yard touchdown run to put the Big Reds up 21-0 after one quarter.

But the Rockets didn’t give up.

They drove 71 yards for a touchdown on the opening drive of the second quarter. Dereko Riley kept the drive alive with 29-yard pass reception, then capped the effort with a 4-yard touchdown run.

Muskegon answered on its next possession when halfback Tavon Jackson took a pitch from Thrower and hit a wide open William Roberson for a 68-yard touchdown pass.

But Reeths-Puffer scored again late in the first half with a 12-yard touchdown drive that started at its own 15.

Halfback Julian Munday took a snap on a fake punt and ran 31 yards to the Muskegon 33. Then wideout DeAndre Oakes-Owens snagged two passes, including a 15-yard touchdown reception under heavy coverage, to narrow the score to 28-14 at halftime.

The Rockets had several chances to gain the momentum in the third quarter. They took the opening kickoff, but their drive ended quickly when Muskegon’s Caleb Washington intercepted a pass on the third play of the drive.

The Big Reds missed a field goal attempt after that, giving Reeths-Puffer another possession, but the drive went nowhere.

Thomas got hot after that. His 11-yard scoring run with 4:50 left in the third quarter gave Muskegon a 35-14 lead.

Thrower added a 22-yard touchdown run with 7 minutes left it game, then Thomas added his 68-yard touchdown with 2:42 remaining, capping the win for Muskegon.

Ken Finley led the Big Reds defensively with 13 tackles and a sack. Alezay Coleman added 10 tackles for the winners.

Munday paced the Rockets with 86 yards on the ground.

“They’re a good team and we didn’t play our best ball,” said Reeths-Puffer coach Kyle Jewett, whose team finished the season 7-3. “It’s hard to play catch-up against a good team.

“I’m very proud of our kids and the work they put in this year. Our success this year is a true testament to their character and determination.”