By Mike Mattson
Local Sports Journal
MUSKEGON – Nobody has to remind Muskegon‘s Caleb Washington about the Big Reds’ unfinished business at Detroit’s Ford Field.
Muskegon lost the last two Division 2 state championship games to Birmingham Brother Rice. So it’s safe to say that Washington and his teammates will be extra focused in Saturday’s Division 3 state title game against Orchard Lake St. Mary’s (11-2). Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m.
“It’s a great accomplishment for us going back for the third time to the state championship game,” said Washington, who is a standout at running back and outside linebacker for Muskegon.
“This time, we have to get the job done. The past two years we haven’t been able to finish. That’s the main thing we’ve been preaching this year is to finish off the season.”
Muskegon (12-1) will be seeking its sixth state playoff championship, with the last title coming in 2008. The Big Reds also have beaten OLSM twice – 21-14 in the 2012 season opener and 31-7 in the 2004 state championship game.
Saturday will also bring another chance for Muskegon Coach Shane Fairfield and his staff to settle unfinished business, as well. They will be coaching their 42nd game over the past three seasons, and they would like a state trophy to show for it.
“We wanted a chance to put ourselves in a position to wipe away some of the disappointment we’ve had the last couple of years,” Fairfield said. “Some people would die to get there, but our mission is always to be the best and finish.
“For these kids to go through all the criticisms —people don’t remember second best, you are a second loser. For them to put that all behind them and stay focused is special. We’re excited to get this chance again.”
OLSM is a state power with 20 playoff berths, 11 state finals appearances and championships won in 1977, 1994, 1999, 2000 and 2011. The Eaglets will be making their sixth appearance in the state finals in the past eight years.
OLSM suffered two losses during the season to Brother Rice – 28-20 in Week 6 and 35-28 in the Week 9 Prep Bowl at Ford Field. The Eaglets also beat Warren DeLaSalle – Mona Shores’ opponent in Friday’s D-3 title game – 14-10 in Week 5.
In the playoffs, OLSM eliminated Detroit Renaissance 41-0, Warren Woods-Tower 49-15, Mason 49-10 and New Boston Huron 51-3.
Offensively, the Eaglets like to line up in a three-back, wishbone formation and play power football. It’s a somewhat different style of attack than Zeeland West’s hide-the-ball Wing-T offense Muskegon shut down in the state semifinals.
”It won’t be as hard to find the ball this week, because of none of the ball fakes,” Fairfield said. “They tell you where it is going. You just have to be man enough to stop it. They have playmakers on the edge and they spread you out, too. For our defense, it will come down to keeping them in third and longs and making them throw more than they are used to.”
In the semis against New Boston Huron, quarterback Brendan Tabone completed 6-of-9 passes for 48 yards and two touchdowns and Griffin Sheposh caught two touchdowns for the Eaglets.
OLSM’s ground attack is led by the trio of speedy juniors Brandon Adams, Josh Myrick and Pierce (P.J.) Bauer. Bauer is the bruising fullback. Sophomore Ryan Johnson is another speedy option who has multiple 100-yard games this season.
The Big Reds will get a boost on defense from their leading tackler, linebacker Taran “T.J.” Smith, who suffered an ankle injury in the semifinals. Fairfield said X-rays were negative and Smith should be in the starting lineup.
Muskegon will attack on offense with its spread option veer led by quarterback Shawn Pfenning, Washington at running back and many speedy wide receivers and slotbacks.
The offensive line also will be intact with the return of Juanye Johnson, who has been sidelined with an injury since the Mona Shores game in the regular season.
Fairfield expects to face an aggressive OLSM defense
“Defensively, they are good and really disciplined and they have a secondary that is very athletic,” he said. “I think they will try to bring the game to us on defense. We have to prepare for the worst this week, in preparation of them giving our offense all kinds of fits with a lot of heavy pressure.”
Muskegon will play the last state title game of the weekend on Saturday night. By that time, Muskegon Catholic will have played the Division 8 title game on Friday morning and Mona Shores will have played the Division 2 championship game Friday afternoon.
It means the Big Reds will leave the final impression for the Muskegon-area football community.
“The pressure will be on us,’’ Fairfield said. “We know (MCC) will win it. I strongly believe Shores can beat DeLaSalle, so the pressure will be on us to be the third team in the last session to bring it home.
“It’s an exciting time for Muskegon and our community. It shows our young men if you continue to fight and climb, good things can happen to you. Our kids are very deserving of good things happening to them.”