By Steve Gunn
MUSKEGON – For the past week, Muskegon Big Reds Coach Shane Fairfield has been warning his team that the Byron Center Bulldogs would be much tougher than they were in Week 4, when the Big Reds beat them 49-14.
The Bulldogs had apparently been told that the Big Reds, now 11-1 on the season, had somehow regressed since the two teams met earlier in the season. Some Muskegon players heard that, and were inspired to prove the information wrong.
They did so in convincing fashion, handing Byron Center a 62-7 whipping in a Division 3 regional championship matchup at Hackley Stadium on Friday.
The Big Reds now advance to the next Saturday’s state semifinals against Edwardsburg, which defeated Chelsea 42-40 on Friday.
“Our guys had some people tell them they had fallen off and we were not same team as we were earlier,” said Fairfield, who declined to give a lot of details about the apparent slight. “That was a great motivator for our kids. It was on TV – the kids saw the interview – that kind of helped me out a lot. The kids kind of had a chip on their shoulder.”
The regional title was very symbolic for the Big Reds, who were eliminated in the regional finals last season by Lowell.
“After getting this far and losing, having to collect the equipment the following Monday is hard,” Fairfield said. “Last year I felt exactly the same way Byron Center feels right now. The kids felt the same way. I’m just glad we get another week with these young men.”
Friday’s victory was sweet for the Big Red seniors who played their final game at Hackley Stadium.
Muskegon’s most visible senior, standout quarterback Kalil Pimpleton, finished with 159 yards rushing on 11 carries and scored three touchdowns.
Another senior who had a very big night was defensive back Raquis McDonald, who intercepted a pass in the second quarter that led to a Big Red touchdown, then picked up a fumble later in the quarter and returned it for another score.
Bryon Center looked strong in the early moments of the game, but the Bulldogs allowed opportunity to turn into tragedy with turnovers.
The Bulldogs took the opening possession of the game and drove to the Muskegon 30, before coughing up a fumble. The Big Reds then drove 68 yards on seven plays and scored on a two-yard touchdown burst by Pimpleton.
Byron Center took the ensuing kickoff and drove to the Muskegon 39. Bulldog quarterback Zac Saltzgaber completed a pass to a receiver around the Big Red 10, but the ball popped loose after the catch and was snagged in the air by McDonald, who returned it to the Muskegon 18.
Six plays later, Pimpleton completed a 54-yard pass to Jacorey Sullivan, then running back Da’vion Mccall scored from 10 yards out, giving Muskegon a 14-0 lead.
Bryon Center again tried to get moving on offense, but Saltzgaber was hit hard when he dropped back to throw on the third play of the next drive. He dropped the ball and McDonald grabbed it and dashed into the end zone for another quick touchdown.
A Bulldog punt gave Muskegon the ball back at the Bulldog 33-yard line a few minutes later, and a Byron Center personal foul put the Big Reds on the doorstep at the 15-yard line.
Two plays later Muskegon quarterback La’darius Jefferson, who rotates in when Pimpleton moves to other positions in the backfield, scored from two-yards out.
Muskegon’s Willie Shanks picked off a pass on the Bulldogs’ next possession, giving the Big Reds the ball at their own 43.
La’darius Jefferson connected with Jaden Mcgough for a 38-yard pass to put the ball at the Byron Center 5, then scored on the next play with a five-yard run to give Muskegon a 35-0 lead.
Pimpleton added a seven-yard touchdown run later in the second quarter, and the Big Reds strode off the field with a 42-0 halftime lead, prompting a running clock in the second half.
Muskegon collected second-half touchdowns from Pimpleton, who broke loose for a 59-yard score, as well as Lonnie Clark (a seven-yard run) and Clinton Jefferson (a three-yard run).
Byron Center’s only score came early the second quarter on a five-yard touchdown run by Saltzgaber.
Fairfield credited the aggressive play of his defense for disrupting the Byron Center offense and causing the rash of turnovers.
Ali’Vonta Wallace and Da’Monte Neal led the Big Red defense with six tackles apiece while Mark Dowell and McDonald each had five.
“It was the way we were attacking people, the way we were running to the ball,” he said. “We talked about that in the locker room – don’t ever assume somebody else is making the tackle. You need to run to the ball and it has to be your tackle. If I can get everyone thinking that way we can send a huge message.”