By Steve Gunn
That’s a record most coaches envy, and will never come close to matching.
But the three championship games at Ford Field have not gone well for Fairfield and the Big Reds. They made three straight appearances, between 2012 and 2014, and lost each one.
Muskegon fell to powerful Birmingham Brother Rice 35-28 in 2012 and 31-21 in 2012, then dropped a 7-0 heartbreaker to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in 2014.
The Big Reds will have the opportunity to gain revenge when they play St. Mary’s again in the Division 3 state finals on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
A victory would address a lot of frustration that Fairfield and the Big Reds have experienced over the past few years. While they’re proud of their accomplishments, and clearly have one of the best high school football teams in Michigan, there is no substitute for winning the big one.
“I would like to have a few more state titles tacked on (to the overall record),” Fairfield said on Tuesday, before he took his team to Michigan State University to practice in an indoor facility. “It’s very hard to work that hard, and walk away as just a state finalist.”
Fairfield admits that the 2014 loss to St. Mary’s was the toughest of the three to take. The Big Reds had their chances to win, but were stopped on downs at the St. Mary’s two-yard line in the second quarter, and threw three interceptions in the game.
“We just had some blunders and some things didn’t go our way,” he said. “We were near the goal line and didn’t score. Those types of things haunt you all the time.”
Fairfield says he’s heard his share of negative comments from critics over the years – including some passionate Big Red fans – who had a tough time accepting three straight losses in the state finals.
When they claim he can’t win the “big one,” he has a logical response waiting:
“Since when did conference and district and regional and semifinal games become not big games?” Fairfield said. “You have to win a lot of big games to get to the game that people judge you the most on.”
Fairfield said he can handle criticism of his performance, but has been troubled by negative comments directed at young players who have worked hard to come within a victory of winning state titles.
“That hurts more than what they say about me,” he said. “I’ve been called just about everything a person can be called over the years. What’s disheartening is when they criticize the kids.
“But if your goal is to win to shut people up, you’re playing for all the wrong reasons. If you have the right amount of commitment from the coaches and the players, and everything aligns and you deserve it and win it, that’s what’s rewarding. Everything else will go away.”
The Big Reds enter the state title game with a sparkling 12-1 record. Their only loss was a three-point heartbreaker in the second week of the season to Lincolnshire Stevenson, an Illinois state power from the Chicago area.
They have beaten every other challenger, most of them by very impressive margins. The Big Reds have outscored their opponents 652-151 this season.
Muskegon has been on a tear in the playoffs in recent weeks, beating Forest Hills Northern 63-14, East Grand Rapids 28-10, Byron Center 62-7, and Edwardsburg 19-8 in last weekend’s semifinal game, played in snowy and windy conditions in Kentwood.
Fairfield said he knew before the season that this year’s team had the talent to get back to Ford Field, but the players had to make it happen with focus and commitment.
They did just that.
“It comes from these players being around winning for so many years,” said Fairfield, who played on a state championship team in high school at Muskegon Catholic. “A lot of them come from families that had players on teams that made deep runs into the playoffs. And it comes from having their goals set, prioritizing and staying humble.”
Fairfield said he’s just as proud of the way the Big Reds conduct themselves off the field as he is of their success on it.
“We have told them, ‘Let’s deserve to win, not just because of talent, but because we are good people,’” he said. “They are a group of very good young men. When they are done, and people talk about their legacy, they want them to say that they were a bunch of great dudes. Our kids are polite, caring, giving and classy.”
The Big Reds will have their hands full in their rematch with Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, which will be gunning for its third straight Division 3 state championship.
The Eagletes come in with a 9-4 record, but as Fairfield points out, that mark is “very deceptive.” St. Mary’s has lost twice to powerhouse Detroit Catholic Central, a state finalist in Division 1, and played a very challenging schedule against a lot of top teams.
The Eagletes have been on fire in the playoffs, beating Bay City John Glenn 49-14, Linden 49-14, and Dearborn Divine Child 49-7 in last weekend’s semifinal game. Their only real postseason challenge came against DeWitt in the regional finals, when they won 35-28.
St. Mary’s has a great deal of talent on defense, led by senior linebackers Josh Ross (6-0, 220) and Dwayne Chapman (6-1, 220), and senior cornerback Richard Bowens III. All three are committed to play at Division 1 colleges next year, with Ross headed to the University of Michigan.
The Eaglets’ offense is powered by a pair of dangerous running backs – senior RaShawn Allen, who rushed for 134 yards in the semifinals and averages about eight yards per carry, and junior Kyren Cunningham, who gained 83 yards and scored three touchdowns in the semifinals.
The two backs run behind a big and powerful line anchored by senior Ralph Holley and junior Donnie Whalen, who both check in at 6-2, 280 pounds.
“They do what they do and they’re really good at it,” Fairfield said about St. Mary’s. “They grind it out and punch it in. They play ball control on offense and are really good on defense.
“If you want to win a state title, you have to beat a really good team.”
Muskegon certainly has the talent to match St. Mary’s. It starts with an offense that has already scored more points than any Big Red team in modern history.
The attack is led by senior quarterback Kalil Pimpleton, who will be studying and playing football next fall at Virginia Tech. The small but speedy Pimpleton has piled up amazing statistics this year.
He’s gained 1,456 yards on 130 carries for a jaw-dropping 11.3-yard average, with 22 touchdowns.
Pimpleton, who shares quarterback duties with junior La’darius Jefferson, has also completed 38 of 71 passes for 714 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Jefferson, who takes the snaps while Pimpleton roves around the backfield in other formations, has rushed for 865 yards on 109 carries and 17 touchdowns. He’s also been effective through the air, completing 50 of 79 passes for 863 yards and nine touchdowns.
Overall Muskegon has outrushed its opponents 3,766 to 1,160 this season.
The top receiver on the team is senior Jacorey Sullivan, who has snagged 26 passes for 553 yards and seven touchdowns.
The Big Red defense has been extremely stingy, giving up the fourth-fewest points (151 in 13 games) of any Muskegon team since 2000.
The 2000 and 2009 squads gave up fewer points, but only played 10 and 11 games, respectively. The 2004 state championship team posted the best mark, surrendering only 124 points during its 14-game state title run.
The Big Reds’ leading tackler is Andrew Ward with 114 stops. Wallace Ali’Vanta has 69 tackles, Sullivan and Eli Jackson have 56 apiece while DJ Jackson has 46.
Sullivan has five interceptions while Ali’Vonta and Raquis McDonald have three apiece.