By Steve Gunn
After all, the opponent is Byron Center, a team the Big Reds thumped 49-14 in a Week 4 home game.
But the Muskegon players will definitely not have that mindset, because Coach Shane Fairfield and his staff have been reminding them of a few stark facts all week:
Byron Center is 10-1 on the season, just like Muskegon. The Bulldogs have beaten everyone they’ve played except the Big Reds, with two convincing playoff wins in the past two weeks, over Zeeland East (45-6) and Grand Rapids Christian (55-28).
Byron Center has outscored its opponents 455-244 this season.
The Bulldogs feature at least two very potent weapons on offense – quarterback Zac Saltzgaber, who ran for five touchdowns and passed for two more in Byron Center’s win over Grand Rapids Christian – and receiver Brayden Smith, who caught touchdown passes of 43, 56 and 64 yards in the pre-district game against Zeeland East.
So anyone who is expecting another blowout win may be in for surprise, according to Fairfield.
Muskegon will host Byron Center Friday at 7 p.m. in a Division 3 regional championship game, with the winner advancing to next weekend’s Division 3 state semifinals against the survivor of the Edwardsburg-Chelsea regional game.
“They do a lot of the same stuff,” said Fairfield, who has been watching updated film of Byron Center all week. “I heard their coach make a comment that they don’t do a whole lot, but what they do, they do very well, and I agree with that.
“They’re better at it, they’re playing with more confidence and they are more seasoned. When you throw in the fact that this is a regional championship game, it makes them all the more deadly and dangerous.”
This week’s regional final is very symbolic for the Big Reds, considering their fate last fall.
After advancing to the state finals for three straight years, 2012 through 2014, Muskegon fell hard in last year’s Division 2 regional finals to Lowell, 36-7.
The ugly loss was a painful reminder for the Big Reds that their ticket to Detroit’s Ford Field is not automatic every season. There are very good teams to be dealt with along the playoff trail, and any week could be the last week of the season.
Fairfield said he’s still disappointed with the wet, sloppy field conditions at Lowell last year, but said it’s the Big Reds’ own fault for losing during the regular season and not having home field advantage in the playoffs.
“It was tough to get to the regional championship game and lose the chance to move on to the semis,” Fairfield said. “There were no excuses. We didn’t do what we had to do to get the job done. Now we’re back at the same step as last year, we’re at the door, let’s take that next step.”
The Big Reds should be ready for a potentially close game, after being challenged to a degree in their first two playoff games.
They beat Forest Hills Northern 63-14 in the pre-district round, but only led 28-14 at halftime.
They beat East Grand Rapids 28-10 in last week’s district championship game, after trailing at the end of the first quarter.
Both games demonstrated that the Big Reds are becoming more diverse on offense as the season progresses. While they still rely heavily on the speed and elusiveness of talented quarterback/slotback Kalil Pimpleton, they’ve also been using other skilled players to gain big yards at crucial moments.
One good example is junior quarterback La’darius Jefferson, who has been taking more frequent snaps over the course of the season as Pimpleton shifts around the backfield. Last week against East Grand Rapids, Jefferson ran for 121 yards on 20 carries with three touchdowns, and completed five of six passes for 61 yards.
“Sometimes teams are going to double or triple-team (senior wide receiver) Jacorey Sullivan, or stack up players on the side of the field where KP (Pimpleton) is, so we can open it up for other athletes like Davion Mccall or Clinton Jefferson,” Fairfield said. “Both of those running backs had more carries last week than they’ve had all season.”