By Jim Moyes
This past weekend’s performance by our local gridders in the state semifinals continues to lay credence to my contention that nothing can top the euphoria of high school sports.
If there is one sure thing you can bank on when it comes to a prep contest, it’s that one can expect the unexpected. But what happened Saturday afternoon on the frozen tundra turf at Howell High School surpassed the surreal.
Thanks to the more than a gritty effort by a team that could have buried their chins in their hands, the Muskegon area has once again convincingly staked its claim as the best football community in the Wolverine State.
Not only are Muskegon, Mona Shores and Muskegon Catholic Central schools in the same county, but they all share the same zip code. And let us not forget that three decades back they were all members of the same conference – the Lake Michigan Athletic Conference.
And how neat it is to recognize that the three head coaches representing our area in the state finals were all products of our local teams. It seems like just days ago this ‘ole announcer’ was calling their names over the airwaves from their prep playing days.
Steve Czerwon and Shane Fairfield each played at Muskegon Catholic and how proud can Matt Koziak be to lead his alma mater, Mona Shores, into the state finals?
It is no surprise that our two traditional Port City powers – the Big Reds and the Crusaders – will make what seemingly is a routine trip to the Motown area – but the Sailors?
There can be no bigger thrill for high school players, or their fans, to reach a state championship game for the first time. I remember way back in 1981 the shivers that ran up and down my spine when I saw Sam Parker’s field goal split the uprights on the icy gridiron at Flint’s Atwood Stadium to send my former high school, North Muskegon, to the Pontiac Silverdome the following week.
I’m sure the long-suffering fans at Mona Shores felt the same way when Farmington Hills’ last-second desperation pass fell harmlessly to the turf in the Sailor end zone as the clock reached 0:00, giving Mona Shores an improbable victory against seemingly impossible odds.
Sailor fans had to be shocked when arguably the finest player in Sailor history, quarterback Tyree Jackson, went down with a game-ending knee injury with the Sailors trailing 10-9 and the game less than 2 minutes into the second quarter.
The fans surely were stunned, but the Mona Shores players and coaches were confident that their second-string quarterback, Tyler Trovinger, could step up. And did he ever! For a moment, while following this game, thanks to the magic of today’s modern technology from my new digs in North Florida, I thought I saw the second coming of former star quarterback Steve DeLong in Trovinger.
Trovinger, after fumbling his initial snap from center that led to Harrison’s second touchdown and an apparently secure 17-9 lead, would get better after every consecutive snap.
However, the Sailors would see their luck then go from bad to worse when Trovinger, after rallying the Sailors to tie up the game at 17-17, was injured with a helmet-to-helmet blow in his own end zone. He was carted away on a stretcher to a nearby hospital.
Did Elijah Wilson think for even one second on the bus ride to Howell earlier in the morning that he would be called upon to be the Sailor savior at quarterback later that afternoon?
The slim junior, a first-string defensive back but a third-string quarterback, did exactly that with Mona Shores trailing 24-17 and a distant 80 yards away from the goal line with five minutes left in the game.
Wilson delivered a perfect strike to wide receiver Kobe Burse, who then gave his best Usain Bolt impersonation when he out raced the heralded Harrison speedy secondary in a dash to the goal line. The Sailors were an extra point from placement from tying up this thrilling game.
But wait! Not only are Jackson and Trovinger the No. 1 and 2 quarterbacks, they are also the No. 1 and 2 holders for extra points. It was then that Koziak called the best play in his coaching career: A play action toss fake to Hunter Broersma, with DeOntay Moffett slipping out of the backfield and into a wide open area in the end zone to receive a perfect pass from the unflustered backup quarterback.
The slim Harrison crowd looked in disbelief when they saw that the scoreboard had their Hawks trailing those upstarts from Mona Shores 25-24. With more than 4 minutes remaining, there was plenty of time left on the clock for this talented Harrison team to march down the field.
Over this past season, I have read so much about the potent Sailor offense, but I was as equally impressed with the Sailors defense. The tenacious Sailor defense held not just once, but twice, in the final moments to tuck away the greatest win in Sailor football history. And Wilson, who saw limited snaps at quarterback during daily practice sessions, was playing the secondary when Harrison’s desperation last second pass fell harmlessly to the turf.
I felt it was imperative to get a reaction from a Sailor fan who has been a part of Sailor Nation since the school opened nearly 50 years ago.
It’s possible that nobody has seen, and up until now, suffered more watching Mona Shores football over the years than former Sailor player, and longtime coach and administrator, my good friend Mike Mack.
And how he was excited during our recent phone conversation!
After taking a deep breath Mack’s first thoughts were: “Oh my God, they really did it? I was in shock. I was just stunned! Each kid found a way to win and all the way home I tried to analyze the game over and over in my mind, “ said Mack.
“It started in Game 1 with Saline when we won that game and we just kept getting better,” added the exuberant Mack. The former Sailor boys and girls varsity basketball coach heaped special praise for Coach Koziak.
“Matt Koziak was a perfect fit for our team,” added the proud lifelong Sailor. One of the Mona Shores alums who unfortunately will not be at Ford Field Friday is arguably the most well known of all former Sailor athletes, current Detroit Red Wing star Justin Abdelkader.
Tuesday is Abdelkader bobblehead night and Justin will show his support for his hometown by donning a Sailor hat. Unfortunately, the Red Wings will be out of town on Friday, but Abdelkader will be receiving numerous texts from his buddy Mike Mack throughout the course of the game, as they’ve been doing throughout this exciting season.
When I asked Mack as to the reaction from Sailor fans seated nearby at the game Mack gushed: “Our fans are just great. We had fans at this game from all over the state as we have a lot of alumni now. We all are so excited as this is all new to us. This isn’t old hat like it is for the fans from Muskegon and Catholic. This is going to be a fun week.”
The past weekend’s action rekindled flashbacks of a couple of games played more than two decades ago.
Muskegon’s defensive effort over a Zeeland West team sent me back in time to Montague’s shutout of another high scoring outfit at Grand Rapids Housemen Field in 1992. Battle Creek Pennfield had set a state record for the most points scored in a single season only to be shut out by Montague’s Wildcats 7-0.
One of the most underrated coaches in Michigan, former Orchard View head coach John Shillito, brought his Zeeland West Dux offensive machine to Greenville with a prolific offense that churned out points at a rate of nearly 50 per game.
And, just as Montague shut out Pennfield, Muskegon would do the same this past Saturday. The Big Reds 20-0 shutout victory would prove to be the only game in which Shillito’s’ Wing-T offense would fail to find the end zone in his magnificent 10 year stint as Zeeland’s head coach, a true testament to the strength of the Big Reds’ defense.
The Sailors comeback victory, overcoming a number of difficult obstacles to say the least, reminded me of Reeths Puffer’s last-second victory over Walled Lake Central in the state Class AA finals in that same 1992 season.
The Rockets overcame five turnovers to pull out a victory on that unforgettable Hail Mary pass from Geoff Ziegler to Stacey Starr.
Yet another near miracle occurred in the state semifinals in 2008 when Muskegon scored three touchdowns in the final 5 minutes to punch their ticket to Ford Field.
As for Muskegon Catholic – well, that is just some football team! I don’t think there is one team that will play this weekend at Ford Field, in ANY division, that would be confident in beating this year’s MCC powerhouse.
Munising and the Crusaders each share one interesting note when they face off Friday at 10 a.m. They each won their first state championship in 1980 – Munising in Class C and the Crusaders in Class B. However, that’s where the similarities end. This will be the UP Mustangs first trip back to the state finals since that title earned 34 years ago. Meanwhile, the Crusaders will be seeking their 10th state championship and are top heavy favorites to bring home yet another trophy.
Only a handful of these wonderful athletes that we’ll watch on the big stage at Ford Field this weekend will play the great game of football at the next level, but these gallant warriors, as well as their legion of followers, will share a moment that they will long remember.
Just another reason why I’m so proud to proclaim Muskegon as my old hometown.