By Steve Gunn
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – It obviously takes talent and dedication for a team to make run at a state football championship.
But luck and good timing can help a lot, too.
The Muskegon Big Reds trailed a tough Cedar Springs squad by a touchdown late in the second quarter Saturday. They could have been down by two scores, but a wide open Cedar Springs receiver fell down in the end zone before a likely touchdown pass arrived, keeping the Big Reds within seven points at halftime.
Then the Big Reds had a punt blocked deep in their own end late in the game, giving Cedar Springs a golden opportunity to tie the score. But a pass into the end zone got tipped out of a receiver’s grasp and into the hands of Muskegon’s Keyante Carpenter, preserving the home team’s lead,
In the end Muskegon (10-1) escaped with a 27-14 victory in front of thousands of chilled fans at Hackley Stadium to claim a Division 3 district title. The Big Reds advance to play Petoskey at home in a state quarterfinal game next weekend, with the day and time to be announced.
“That’s a good football team, a scrappy football team, and today they made us a better football team,” said Muskegon Coach Shane Fairfield, who earned his 50th career win with the Big Reds and received the game ball afterward.
“People have to realize that we’re not always going to win games by 59 points. High school football is a game involving 16- and 17-year-old kids, and if you give them a little hope, anything’s possible. But we didn’t panic, we didn’t get away from what we had to do.”
There were probably some fans who thought the Big Reds would waltz through the playoffs this year, after dropping from Division 2 to Division 3. That seemed to be the case in their first postseason game, an easy win last week over Grand Rapids Northview.
But Cedar Springs, which finished 9-2 on the season, gave Muskegon all it could handle.
The Redhawks got the ball at the Muskegon 25 late in the first quarter, following a Big Red fumble. Cedar Springs quarterback Collin Alvesteffer kept the ball on the first play from scrimmage and rambled 25 yards for a touchdown. A two-point conversion attempt failed, and the visitors led 6-0.
Muskegon answered on its next possession with a 12-play, 78-yard drive that culminated with a 10-yard touchdown run by Cameron Copeland with 7:17 left in the second quarter. The extra point by Miguel Flores was good, putting the Big Reds up 7-6.
The score was set up by two key plays – a four-yard run by Alquan Evans on fourth-and -four at the Cedar Springs 45, and a 32-yard pass from quarterback Shawn Pfenning to Evans that set up the touchdown.
The Redhawks regained the lead with an 80-yard scoring drive late in the half, which ended with a four-yard TD run by Alvesteffer and a successful two-point conversion.
A 57-yard run up the middle by Cedar Springs running back Zach Wamser put the Redhawks in position for the score.
A short Muskegon punt a few plays later gave the Redhawks the ball back at the Muskegon 33 with just over a minute left in the half. But a wide open receiver fell on the wet grass just before the ball arrived, costing his team a chance for a two-touchdown lead.
On the next play Alvesteffer slipped and fell as he dropped back for a final pass, and the Red Hawks had to settle for a 14-7 halftime lead.
The Big Reds took advantage of the Redhawks’ missed opportunity, scoring two touchdowns in the first seven minutes of the third quarter to grab their first lead.
The first came four minutes into the second half, after a very short Cedar Springs punt gave Muskegon the ball the Redhawk 27. Two plays later Pfenning completed a pass to Evans, who broke outside and beat the defenders for a 28-yard touchdown.
The extra point tied the score at 14-14.
The next came when the Big Reds had the ball at their own 45. Pfenning completed a pass to Joeviair Kennedy, who snagged the ball in double coverage around the Cedar Springs 20, then broke free for a 55-yard touchdown reception with 5:02 left in the third.
Another extra point by Flores gave the Big Reds their first lead, 21-14.
Muskegon drove back to the Redhawk 22, but missed a chance to pad its lead when a 39-yard field goal attempt fell short.
Muskegon’s defense toughened up in the second half and kept the Cedar Springs offense largely in check.
But the Redhawks got a golden opportunity to tie the score with just over five minutes left in the contest when they blocked a Big Red punt near the Muskegon five-yard line and got the ball at the nine.
On third and goal, Alvesteffer found a receiver just inside the goal line, but the ball was tipped out of his hands by Alezay Coleman and snagged in the air by Carpenter, ending the final Cedar Springs threat.
“I saw the ball in the air, and I turned my head and my teammates (Coleman) deflected the ball and I went for it,” Carpenter said. “It was a big game changer and allowed us to get the win.”
“I’m just glad (Carpenter) caught it in the end zone,” Fairfield said. “If it would have been (outside the end zone) it probably would have been a safety. It’s just the way things worked out. Today we got the bounces.”
The Big Reds ran the clock down on their final offensive possession, then got a 43-yard touchdown run by Caleb Washington as the clock expired.
Pfenning had a big game, completing 8 of 14 passes for 128 yards and one touchdown, and rushing 15 times for 96 yards. Washington had 15 carries for 79 yards while Kennedy totaled three receptions for 57 yards.
Taran Smith led the Big Red defense with 11 tackles while Tarrien Hill-Mackey added eight, Carpenter had six and Jacarius Scott had five.
Wamser led Cedar Springs with 83 yards rushing.