By Adam Knorr
Eric Schugars, the son of Hall of Fame former Oakridge Coach Jack Schugars, is the first-year head coach of the Traverse City squad. And like his dad, he has found success on the sidelines.
The Trojans just completed a perfect 9-0 regular season, after a long string of mediocre seasons. They will pose a formidable challenge for the Big Reds, who are attempting to make the state finals for the fourth straight season.
The Division 2 playoff game is slated for 7 p.m. on Friday in Traverse City. The winner will advance to play the survivor of Friday’s Mona Shores-Forest Hills Northern game.
Muskegon will be challenged by a bruising, physical TCC squad. The Trojans feature a rush-first offense, but are not skittish about moving the ball through the air.
TCC quarterback Reagan Cotton has completed 101-of-154 passes for 1,437 yards, 19 touchdowns and just three interceptions, while adding 213 rushing yards. The Trojans don’t turn the ball over very often in their option-oriented offense.
The Trojan rushing tandem features junior John Pupel, a bruising back, and junior Devante Walker, a speed specialist. Pupel has rushed for 705 and 15 touchdowns, while Walker has gained 466 yards and seven touchdowns.
Walker also leads the TCC receiving corps with 29 catches for 514 yards and seven touchdowns.
“It’s a challenge,” said Muskegon Coach Shane Fairfield. “If you want to play indoors (at Ford Field) the last game of the year, you have to find a way to win and you have to put your kids in that position.”
The bright side for the Big Reds is that tough opponents are nothing new.
Muskegon’s two losses have come in tight games against powerful Mona Shores and Detroit Catholic Central. Six of the nine teams on the Big Reds’ schedule made it to the playoffs.
Muskegon head coach Shane Fairfield knows that, while his team takes each game week-to-week, the undefeated status of TCC could give his squad a little extra motivation.
“We approach each week the same but I think it gives our guys a little edge, a little hunger,” Fairfield said. “We’d like to go in there and play spoiler.”
While the Big Reds respect Coach Schugars and his squad, that feeling is definitely mutual. After growing up in Muskegon and watching the quality of Big Red football during his dad’s 32-year career, Schugars knows there will be no free pass to the district finals.
“Just knowing the tradition of excellence and the caliber of athletes that play for Muskegon and the athletes they have, it’s good,” said Eric Schugars, who was a longtime assistant at Traverse City before taking the head coaching job this year. “They play a tough schedule and they play good teams across the state and they’re competitors.”
The Big Reds will be led on offense by Kalil Pimpleton who can make big plays both in the air and on the ground. The junior quarterback leads the team in rushing with 908 yards and 14 TD’s while throwing for 809 yards and nine touchdown passes.
PP Copeland has been a go to for Pimpleton in the air with 24 catches for 222 yards, including three TD’s. The dual threat senior had had a solid season rushing with 705 yards and nine TD’s.
Jared Pittman also has served Muskegon’s ground attack well with 562 yards and nine scoring runs.
Seven other area teams will also be active in first-round playoff games Friday night.
In Division 2, Mona Shores (9-0) will host Forest Hills Northern (7-2).
The lone Muskegon-area squad in Division 4 is Whitehall (6-3), which will head to the middle part of the state to take on Remus Chippewa Hills (7-2).
Oakridge (7-2) will take the short trip to Grand Rapids West Catholic (7-2) in a Division 5 matchup, while Mason County Central (6-3) will play host to Lake City (5-4) in Division 6.
The other Division 6 game will feature undefeated Montague, which will host Delton Kellogg (5-4).
A clash of Division 7 titans will take place in Hesperia where the host Panthers (9-0) welcome another unbeaten team in Saugatuck (9-0).
Two-time Division 8 state champion Muskegon Catholic Central (6-2) will also play at home against Mt. Pleasant Sacred Heart (6-3).