By Mike Mattson
Local Sports Journal
GREENVILLE – Muskegon senior linebacker Taran “T.J.” Smith sat in the training room Saturday afternoon at Greenville’s Legacy Field with a painful ankle and a joyful heart.
“That’s all Coach has been saying lately, don’t let the moment slip away that you are in,” said Smith, who was injured in the third quarter and had to leave the game. “Give it your all and play like it’s your last (chance).
“We worked all week to stop the wing-T,” Smith added. “Everybody was focused. Everybody was ready and has that vision to get back to Ford Field and actually get a ring this year.”
Muskegon (12-1) will make its third straight trip to the state finals next Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Detroit’s Ford Field. The Big Reds will face Orchard Lake St.Mary’s (11-2), which defeated New Boston Huron 51-3 in the other semifinal.
The story of Saturday’s win against Zeeland West (12-1) was defense. The Big Reds handed West its first shutout in the school’s 10-year football history under Coach John Shillito.
Muskegon allowed 245 yards, kept the Dux out of the end zone and scored just enough points to keep the pressure on. West averaged 49 points per game before facing Muskegon.
“You have to give Muskegon a lot of credit on defense,” said Shillito, the former Orchard View head coach who saw his team’s 24-game win streak come to an end. “What a terrific defensive plan and great job executing it.”
Muskegon, which totaled 257 yards of offense, led 14-0 at halftime on quarterback Shawn Pfenning’s 7-yard TD run in the first quarter and Caleb Washington’s 1-yard run in the second quarter.
The biggest defensive play came from Alezay Coleman, whose long interception return with the Dux threating to score from the 7-yard line, set up Washington’s big TD.
“It all comes down to your seniors making plays when they need to,” Muskegon coach Shane Fairfield said. “We drilled those pass plays. We drilled the play out. For Alezay to put his left paw out and pick that off and get it down there for our offense to score, that was huge for us.
“At this point, everybody is good, everybody is great. Everybody is here for a reason. Those are the breaks that you need in games like this. We are ecstatic our kids played so well and accepted the challenge.”
In the second half, Muskegon relied on a pair of field goals by senior kicker Miquel Flores from 42 yards in the third quarter and a school-record 53-yarder in the final seconds.
West, meanwhile, failed on a fake punt and had two drives stopped on Muskegon’s 16-yard line and 45-yard line in the second half.
“We had a couple of opportunities and didn’t finish drives,” Shillito said. “Again, we didn’t get many opportunities but the ones we had we didn’t finish. They did a great job. That’s a good football team.
“We struggled to block them. They got off blocks and made plays and what we had was more out on the edge. Casey (Brinks) made most of the plays in the first half and Darius (Perisee) made most of the plays that we got.”
Brinks, West’s starting quarterback, got hurt late in the second quarter and never returned. Perisee, a starting running back, played quarterback the rest of the game. Shillito said Brinks may have suffered a concussion.
“We don’t know for sure,” Shillito said. “We’re not going to put him back out there in that circumstance – not to win a football game. It’s just not that important.”
Brinks carried six times for 50 yards and passed for 14 yards, while Perisee had 19 rushing attempts for 116 yards.”
Smith was injured with 5:25 left in the third quarter and had to be helped off the field. His status for next week likely won’t be known until results come back from an X-ray.
Linebacker Tarrion Hill-Mckay led the Big Reds with 12 tackles, followed by Brandon Oliver and Khari Cunningham with seven stops apiece. Smith and Coleman each added six tackles and Fairfield praised sophomore Andrew Ward for filling in for Smith.
Fairfield said his team was prepared to face the wing-T, especially after playing against similar power offenses run by opponents Detroit Catholic Central, Reeths-Puffer, Cedar Springs and Petoskey.
“It’s a tribute to our kids and the butt chewings and the time we worked,” he said. “They accepted everything we wanted them to do. We told them it was going to be a fistfight and that they were going to challenge them. It was nothing I did. Those kids just played their butts off.”
Washington led the Big Reds’ ground attack with 174 yards on 15 carries. Alquan Evans also had a nifty 36-yard run on a reverse that set up Pfenning’s first-quarter TD.
Fairfield planned to treat his team to Scrib’s Pizza due to the shutout.
Next week, Fairfield will gladly take a victory after coming up short against Birmingham Brother Rice in the last two Division 2 state title games. He’s looking forward to getting his team ready for Orchard Lake St. Mary’s.
“This is a tribute to these kids,” Fairfield said. “This is all about the journey and the life lessons. It’s about the last 13 weeks we’ve been together — the ups and downs, the happy moments and sad moments. Our ultimate goal is to win a state championship. I think we have now given ourselves a chance to win it.”