By Steve Gunn
MUSKEGON – The Muskegon Big Reds have won a lot of big football games since 2013.
They addressed that issue to some degree last week by clinching at least a share of the O-K Black Conference title.
They can nail down the outright championship by beating Jenison on Friday at Hackley Stadium at 7 p.m. The visitors can gain a share of the title by beating
The Big Reds are 7-1 overall and 5-0 in the O-K Black Conference, coming into Friday’s home game with Jenison. Jenison is 5-3 overall and 4-1 in the league.
The Big Reds make no secret that they are mainly focused on getting back to Ford Field and winning a state championship. That’s certainly a reasonable goal for a team ranked No. 1 in Michigan in Division 3.
But they would like to claim local bragging rights as well, and that starts with finally winning another conference trophy.
“Our long-term goal is to win a state title,” said Muskegon Coach Shane Fairfield. “But we have goals we have focused on in the short-term – get six wins to qualify for the playoffs, and put ourselves in a positon to win a conference championship. We’ve done both of those things.”
Muskegon was denied a conference title in 2014 and 2015 by crosstown rival Mona Shores, which defeated the Big Reds and won the championship both years.
In last week’s game against Mona Shores, the Big Reds trailed at halftime, and some wondered if the Sailors might continue that trend and mess with Muskegon’s title hopes again.
But Muskegon rallied in the second half and won 36-15, setting up the championship showdown with Jenison.
“With Shores it’s a crosstown rivalry, with trash talking and chest pounding,” Fairfield said. “That took over in the first half. They played their game plan. We only had 11 (offensive snaps) in the first half and only 90 yards of offense. We just didn’t move the sticks when we needed to.
“Shores has a potent offense, but we held them to 15 points and then settled down. They played us tough. We needed that. It’s hard to believe they have three losses. The officials talked about them after the game and said that’s one good team.
“We needed that challenge. It put a spark in us. Hopefully it’s for the better.”
The Big Reds also had some issues the previous week against Kenowa Hills. They won easily – 49-7 – but committed six turnovers in the game. That kind of sloppiness could be troublesome in upcoming matchups against tougher opponents.
Fairfield noted that turnovers were not an issue against Mona Shores, and said his players are focused on sharpening their game as they finish the regular season and head for the playoffs.
“Last week (against Mona Shores) we didn’t have any turnovers, I don’t think.” Fairfield said. “We handled the ball well. These kids are playing hard. Their mindset is playing right, playing fast and getting back to business.
“But the games (the last two weeks) had us shook up a little bit. Mona Shores was in a playoff mentality. They were sitting at 4-3 and knew that if they beat us they could get their sixth win in the last week (to qualify for the playoffs).”
Jenison will be in a similar situation against Muskegon. A victory would not only give the Wildcats a share of the league title, but would send them to the postseason. A loss would deny them both.
That means Jenison is desperate for a win, and desperate teams are dangerous teams.
“We need to win the O-K Black, but Jenison has the ‘win or go home’ mentality,” Fairfield said. “They are coming in with a playoff mentality.”
The Wildcats are young, but have talent, according to Fairfield.
“Jenison is a good team,” he said. “They are ready. They have a really good quarterback in sophomore Kyle Nott. He runs his offense very well. He’s scrappy, he gets after it. He’s had some big games and throws the ball well.
“They have a 6-6, 230-pound tackle, Dan Vanopstall, who is very athletic and could play for us. They have a lot of juniors and some sophomores, but they’re well disciplined. They will give us some challenges and we look forward to it.”
Jenison has beaten Grand Rapids Northview (36-17), Kenowa Hills (32-7), Grand Rapids Union (42-12), Reeths-Puffer (11-8) and Fruitport (20-0). The Wildcats have lost to Forest Hills Central (21-0), Mona Shores (40-10) and West Ottawa (17-16).
The Big Reds have beaten Ann Arbor Pioneer (51-14), Fruitport (36-7), Byron Center (41-14), Reeths-Puffer (66-0), Grand Rapids Union (69-0), Kenowa Hills (49-7) and Mona Shores (36-15).
Muskegon’s only loss was to Illinois power Lincolnshire Stevenson, 38-35. The Big Reds have outscored their opponents this season 418-95.
The Big Red offense is led by dangerous dual-threat quarterback Kalil Pimpleton, who has passed for 542 yards and 13 touchdowns and ran for 879 yards and 15 touchdowns.
The second-leading rusher is the backup quarterback, La’darius Jefferson, who has 376 yards.
The top receivers for Muskegon are Jacorey Sullivan (18 catches, 296 yards, four touchdowns) and Pimpleton (10 catches, 120 yards, one touchdown). Kevin Reynolds, Da’von McCall, Jaden McGough and Clinton Jefferson, Jr. have three touchdown catches apiece.
Andrew Ward leads the team in tackles with 60, followed by Ali Vonta Wallace (40), Derek Spann (33) and Anthony Melton (31). Sullivan has four interceptions while Wallace has three.