By Steve Gunn
The Big Reds overcame a late two-point deficit and scored a touchdown with 1:55 left to take a seemingly safe 28-23 lead.
But St. Mary’s took the ensuing kickoff and drove to the Muskegon 18-yard line with the clock running down.
Then quarterback Caden Prieskorn hit Kyren Cunningham with a dramatic 18-yard touchdown pass with only four seconds remaining, allowing St. Mary’s to grab a stunning 29-28 victory and its third consecutive state championship.
It was Muskegon’s fourth loss in a state title game in five years, and an extremely painful moment for all the players and coaches – particularly Fairfield.
His previous three title game losses were in 2014 (7-0 to Orchard Lake St. Mary’s), 2013 (31-28 to Birmingham Brother Rice) and 2012 (35-28 to Brother Rice).
The Big Reds’ last state championship was in 2008, when they beat Warren De La Salle 34-14 in the finals.
“I thought in my mind that maybe I was not the guy for the job,” said Fairfield, whose team will return to the Division 3 state finals on Saturday against Farmington Hills Harrison at 7:30 p.m. at Detroit’s Ford Field.
“I thought, ‘They have to get somebody else to do it because I’m obviously doing something wrong.’ You sometimes get hung up on the wins and losses. It’s that competitive spirit. I started thinking that it’s got to be my fault that we’re not winning.”
Those negative thoughts only lasted a few moments for Fairfield.
He gathered his heartbroken players together on the field at the quickly emptying Ford Field. He reminded them of everything they had accomplished over the course of the season – eight regular season victories, a conference championship, four big victories in the playoffs, and a berth in the state finals.
“I talked to the kids and told them about the journey,” Fairfield said. “I told them that people will be saying we can’t win the big game, but since when are district finals, regional finals and semifinals not big games?
“Our trophy case is full of awards from big games that a lot of teams would love to have.”
Fairfield also did what any good educator would do. He decided to use the disappointing loss, and the three that preceded it, as tools to drive home an important life lesson.
“In life you are going to come across struggles,” Fairfield said. “There are going to be times when these guys might need to get through a tough college course, or might want a promotion at work, or want a new house or new car. Sometimes those things don’t happen right away in life.
“If these kids can think back to high school, and remember that it took us a while, but we stayed true to our mission, we overcame and we were successful, they will remember that if you stick to things, they often work out in your favor.
“If you get knocked down six times, you get back up seven.”
Fairfield’s Big Reds clearly heard that message. They dug themselves out of the gloom of the heartbreaking last-second loss with even more determination to succeed this fall.
They have plowed through their schedule like a team on a mission, winning all 13 of their games so far, mostly by huge margins.
Last weekend’s 42-0 shutout of Battle Creek Harper Creek in the state semifinals was just the latest example.
All four of Muskegon’s playoff games have ended with running clocks in the second half, because the Big Reds led by at last 35 points after halftime.
The Big Reds have outscored their opponents 694-78 on the season. They have pummeled their four playoff opponents by a combined score of 193-20.
But the celebrating, up to this point, has been muted and limited. The Big Reds are laser-focused on their goal, and they haven’t achieved it yet.
“I was shocked on Saturday that there weren’t more ‘Hurrahs, we’re going to the state championship game,'” Fairfield said. “They were more businesslike. They were like ‘We’ll celebrate after the finals.'”
Senior defensive end Paul Riley was on the sidelines during last year’s state finals, when St. Mary’s completed the final pass and stole the victory.
“Everything just seemed to slow down for a minute when the quarterback took the snap, rolled out and threw the ball into the air,” Riley said. “When he caught it, there were just heart-felt emotions that I couldn’t even describe. There was just a lot of pain at first.
“But as soon as we got back to Muskegon, I started using it as motivation, during the whole offseason and through this whole season. We knew we had to get back and finish it.”
Senior linebacker Demetrius Harris was on the field for that fateful play.
“That last play my back was turned, but when I saw the ball to in the air I was thinking, we got it, all we have to do is knock it down,” Harris said. “Then when he caught it, I just broke down. We were thinking we were supposed to win it for the seniors, I was playing like it was my senior year.
“It was pretty hard getting over it. I thought I would when we got home, but then social media kept going on about how St. Mary’s beat Muskegon. It took months to get over it. It’s still on my mind.”
Harris said the Big Reds haven’t celebrated yet because their goal is still one win away.
“We still have to take care of business,” he said. “We haven’t done anything that previous teams haven’t done. Last year’s team made it this far, and we’ve made it this far. Last year’s team didn’t win, and we have to.”
While Fairfield and the players are determined to win on Saturday, the coach also realizes there are no guarantees.
The Big Reds are 13-0 and ranked No. 1 in the state. Farmington Hills Harrison has three losses this season, and was not ranked in the final Division 3 state poll.
But the Hawks are a traditional power that play a very tough schedule and have won their share of state titles over the years.
Another loss in the finals is possible for the Big Reds.
Fairfield said he could live with that, because he has a successful program, and the student-athletes have had a positive experience that will benefit them the rest of their lives.
“You lay a pathway for these young people to go out and be successful and productive in the world,” Fairfield said. “That’s what we use these long seasons for. It will feel great if we get to put a ring on our fingers, but even if we had won last year, we wouldn’t have changed being who we are.
“We’re not going to change, whether we win or lose this one. We’re going to continue to teach the same things. The long seasons allow us to live together, cry and heal together, and share and build life stories together that will stay with these kids for a lifetime.”
But what about the critics who howled from the stands at Ford Field after last year’s loss, and whined for weeks on social media? They will certainly be even more obnoxious if the Big Reds lose on Saturday.
Fairfield said they don’t matter. He was reminded of that after last year’s game, when he received a letter from Orchard Lake St. Mary’s head coach George Porritt, congratulating Muskegon on its season.
“He wrote that he thought it was shameful to hear the boos (from Muskegon fans),” Fairfield said. “He said it took them four times before they won one.
“I don’t want to give (the team’s critics) the time of day. I do this for the right reasons. I’m going to feel great if we win, but if I allow myself to just focus on that, I won’t be where I need to be as a coach.”