By Nate Thompson

NORTON SHORES — In arguably the biggest showdown in the state of Michigan this week, and the game of the year in the Muskegon area, Muskegon and Mona Shores lived up to expectations.

And La’darius Jefferson was the show stopper.

Muskegon’s 6-foot-2, 210-pound senior quarterback was a bruising force throughout the game. He rushed 32 times for 290 yards and four touchdowns, helping keep the top-ranked Big Reds undefeated with a hard-fought 35-24 victory over a determined Sailors squad in front of 11,500 fans inside a packed Sailor Stadium.

The Big Reds handed the Sailors (7-1) their first loss in what was realistically the O-K Black Conference championship game. Muskegon can clinch the league title next week with a win against Jenison.

La’darius Jefferson prepares to take a hit from from Mona Shores’ No. 23 Matt Martin. Photo/Michael Banka

Jefferson roared praise on his teammates after the game, as the Big Reds gathered around head coach Shane Fairfield, listening to him say they showed the heart of a champion.

“This game helped us a lot,” said Jefferson, who didn’t complete a single pass during the game. “We showed everyone we can overcome adversity. It shows this team has the work ethic, and we can keep going. We can be battle-tested.”

Jefferson admitted Muskegon might have overlooked Mona Shores somewhat entering the showdown, but the Sailors definitely had the Big Reds’ attention throughout the game.

Sailor quarterback Tristan Robbins kept the Shores offense moving consistently with a dual-threat attack. He finished 14-of-21 for 185 yards through the air, and also ran for 86 yards on 14 carries.

Charles Allen tip toes along the sideline for Mona Shores. Photo/Michael Banka

The Sailors struck first midway through the second quarter, when Robbins faked a handoff and darted 15 yards untouched to the end zone. The Big Reds answered quickly, tying the game with a 15-yard run up the middle by Jefferson just two minutes later.

The score was 7-7 at halftime.

“The idea was to run it, and for (the offensive line) to come up and put some hats (on their defense) and then try to throw the ball,” Fairfield said.

The plan changed when a steady rain started in the third quarter, and the Big Reds let their gigantic line and Jefferson go to work.

“There was no sense in trying to throw the ball in this stuff, so we said ‘let’s just go wear them down,’ and our offensive line did a good job of moving the line of scrimmage and getting first downs when we needed them,” Fairfield said.

Still, the Sailors looked to be in command through three quarters. Robbins connected with Keyshawn Summerville on a perfectly thrown 28-yard fade pass early in the quarter to put Mona Shores up 14-7. Summerville had a huge game with nine catches for 106 yards.

Clinton Jeferson nears the end zone for Muskegon as Mona Shores’ No. 23 Matt Martin tries to make the tackle. Photo/Michael Banka

Jefferson tied the score again on a 16-yard scamper with 8:50 left in the third quarter, but the Sailors grabbed a 17-14 lead on a 32-yard field goal by Austin Flowers with 4:45 to play in the third.

Jefferson gave Muskegon its first lead on his longest touchdown run, 38 yards, with 8:02 left in the fourth. The Big Reds then went up by two scores on a 14-yard score by wing back CJ Jefferson. The senior speedster had 111 yards rushing on just 10 carries.

Muskegon totaled 544 yards overall, with 388 in the second half.

Even with time dwindling down and the game seemingly over with 1:57 left, the Sailors weren’t done. They closed the gap to four points with a razzle-dazzle option pass from Summerville to receiver James Gilbert for a 42-yard score.

The Sailors then appeared to recover an onside kick, but the referees ruled they touched the ball before it traveled the required 10 yards, and gave the ball back to the Big Reds.

“I know for certain it went 10 yards,” said Mona Shores coach Matt Koziak. “(The referees) said someone touched it early, but I saw someone jump on it at about 10 ½ yards. We’ll look at it on the tape and see for sure.”

Jefferson added the finishing touches to his dominating effort when he broke a pair of tackles and scored on a 26-yard rumble for the game’s final score.

“I felt like I could bully my way through the defense, and coach said we were going to keep running it,” Jefferson said. “I kept telling my offensive line to stay strong.”

Koziak praised his squad for going toe-to-toe with a Muskegon squad that he labeled as a state title contender in Division 3. Fairfield was equally impressed with the Sailors.

“If they stay healthy, they can make a run,” Fairfield said of the Sailors. “Now, I’m saying let’s stay in Division 3. Holy cow, I don’t want to go through a game like this again.”

Koziak was philosophical after the game.

“Our kids see the bigger picture,” he said. “Yeah, we’re disappointed we didn’t win the O-K Black, but we can’t feel sorry for ourselves. We’re going to clean up some stuff and we’re going to the playoffs and we’ll see if we can make a run.”